LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron was accused on Friday of grandstanding to anti-Europe voters and caving in to euro-skeptic party members with his backing for a referendum on European Union membership.
Trailing in the polls before an election next year, Cameron has thrown his weight behind efforts to guarantee a referendum before 2017. The opposition Labour party is fighting the move.
On Friday, senior parliamentarian Peter Mandelson, a former European commissioner, accused Cameron of being “taken hostage” by the skeptics in his party and of pandering to supporters of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).
“My message to the government is ‘stop grandstanding to the UKIP gallery’,” Mandelson said during a debate in the upper house of parliament. “My experience has made me decidedly pro-reform of the EU, but not in favor of a pig-in-a-poke referendum in this country designed to bridge the divisions within the Conservative Party.”
Cameron, leader of the Conservative-led coalition government, wants Britain to remain within Europe but is trying to renegotiate the country’s role in the 28-nation bloc.
"Today the EU Referendum Bill moves to the House of Lords. Join my call for an in-out referendum by the end of 2017 at www.letbritaindecide.com," Cameron tweeted.
The push for a referendum has helped unite the fractious Conservatives, after divisions over Europe challenged Cameron’s authority last year. Even so, the party has lost voters to UKIP, whose leader, Nigel Farage, has tapped into concerns over immigration and the impact of EU membership on British life.
The issues of EU membership and immigration are tangled together politically, particularly since the start of the year. Beginning in 2014, restrictions ended on employment in the U.K. for citizens of Bulgaria and Romania, both EU members.
A YouGov survey on Friday showed UKIP, which calls for withdrawal from the EU, has around 13 percent of public support even though it holds no seats in parliament.
Labour is leading opinion polls with 38 percent support, putting it six percentage points ahead of the Conservatives. It does not rule out a referendum in the future but says the 2017 guarantee would hurt investment and weaken Britain’s economy.
Labour could block passage of the legislation in the upper house with the help of the Liberal Democrat party, the junior partner in the coalition. The bill is moving through an unorthodox legislative channel that imposes strict time limits on debates. It must be passed by the upper house before February 28.
Even if passed, legislation on a referendum could be reversed if the Conservatives lose the election due in May 2015.
Editing by Larry King