LONDON (AP) — British government ministers will be able to campaign on either side in an in-or-out referendum on European Union membership, Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday — a decision that averts a showdown with anti-EU forces within his Conservative Party.
Cameron has committed to holding a referendum on Britain's membership in the 28-nation bloc by the end of 2017.
He says he will argue to stay in, as long as he gets a new deal for Britain. But Cameron told lawmakers that "it will be open to individual ministers to take a different personal position while remaining part of the government."
If Cameron had insisted on a common position, anti-EU Cabinet ministers might have resigned. But some Conservatives say allowing open dissent could publicly expose divisions within the party, which has long been split over Europe.
Cameron hopes to seal a deal at an EU summit next month and to hold the referendum later this year. But his goals — especially welfare limits for immigrants intended to control migration — face opposition from other EU leaders, who see the welfare curb as violating the fundamental principle of free movement among member states.
Cameron said he supports free movement but wants to ensure Britain's welfare system is not "an artificial draw" for migrants.
He conceded that the welfare issue is "difficult" but said "I believe there is now a pathway to an agreement."
"What matters is getting the substance right, not the speed of the deal," he said.