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EU referendum bill over first hurdle in UK parliament

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(LONDON) - Legislation paving the way for Britain's referendum on leaving the EU crossed its first hurdle in parliament Tuesday as splits on the issue within Prime Minister David Cameron's party were laid bare.

The House of Commons backed the European Union Referendum Bill as expected by 544 votes to 53 but the measure must now pass through several other parliamentary debates and votes before becoming law.

Six hours of speeches highlighted divisions within Cameron's centre-right Conservatives over Europe and the problems he faces en route to the referendum with a narrow 12-seat majority and dozens of MPs likely to back leaving.

The vote came the day after comments by Cameron triggered a row about whether ministers in his government would have to resign if they did not campaign for Britain to remain in Europe.

Opening proceedings, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said many Britons felt "the EU has come to feel like something that is done to them, not for them".

"It is time to bring Europe back to the people, ensuring decisions are made as close to them as possible and giving national parliaments a greater role in overseeing the European Union," Hammond added.

The referendum, which is due by the end of 2017 but could be held as early as next year, was triggered when the Conservatives won a majority in last month's general election.

Cameron is currently holding a wave of talks with other European leaders to try and win reforms to the EU which he wants before the referendum.

He is expected to outline formally a list of demands at a European Council summit later this month. These are likely to include making it harder for EU migrants to claim state benefits in Britain.

Cameron will vote in favour of remaining in the EU if he can secure the changes he wants, while opinion polling currently suggests British voters would back staying in Europe.

- Trouble ahead? -

Media and some eurosceptic MPs had interpreted comments by Cameron over the weekend as meaning that those who wanted to vote against EU membership would have to quit his government.

The prime minister said on Sunday: "If you want to be part of the government you have to take the view that we are engaged in an exercise of renegotiation to have a referendum and that will lead to a successful outcome."

But Cameron's spokeswoman reiterated Tuesday that he had not yet decided whether ministers would be allowed to campaign on different sides in the referendum.

London Mayor Boris Johnson, now also an MP and seen as a potential successor to Cameron, told LBC radio Tuesday it would be "safer and more harmonious" to let ministers campaign to leave the EU.

Speakers during the wide-ranging Commons debate also flagged the clash of opinion in the Conservatives over Europe, hit by divisions on the issue since the era of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Kenneth Clarke, a veteran pro-European and ex-Thatcher minister, said Britain would be listened to less by world powers if it left Europe, a proposal he called "a fanciful, escapist route into isolated nationalism".

But leading eurosceptic John Redwood argued that the referendum was a chance to restore Britain's "precious but damaged democracy" and would leave the country wealthier.

Redwood is one of at least 50 MPs in a new group called Conservatives for Britain which will accept only "fundamental change" in the relationship with the EU.

This includes restoring Westminster's sovereignty over Brussels.

Among the referendum bill's stipulations are that, with a couple of tiny exceptions, only those entitled to vote in a British general election are entitled to vote.

This controversially excludes EU nationals living in Britain plus 16 and 17-year-olds.

An amendment tabled by the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) which would have blocked the bill because the SNP opposes the franchise and wants the referendum result in Scotland to be considered separately from the English one was defeated.


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