LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers overwhelmingly voted a bill setting up a referendum on European Union membership over its first big hurdle in Parliament Tuesday, with Prime Minister David Cameron gaining support from the Labour opposition but facing unrest within Conservative ranks.
Legislators voted by 544 to 53 to back the EU Referendum Bill. The bill, which faces more scrutiny and votes before it becomes law, lays out the rules for a vote on the question, "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?"
Britain voted in 1975 to remain in what was then the European Economic Community, which it had joined two years earlier. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that expansion of the now 28-member bloc "has eroded the democratic mandate for our membership to the point where it is wafer-thin and needs to be renewed."
"We need a fundamental change in the way the European Union operates," he said, with more protections for Britain and other countries outside the euro single currency.
Cameron says he will argue to remain in the EU if he succeeds in renegotiating the terms of membership. He wants to cut back the political powers the EU has over member states on sensitive issues including welfare and immigration.
The bill calls for a referendum by the end of 2017, but Hammond said it could be held sooner if negotiations go quickly.
Cameron faces pressure from dozens of Conservative lawmakers who advocate leaving the EU and want to be able to campaign for a "No" vote even if the prime minister disagrees.
Conservative lawmaker John Redwood, a leading Euroskeptic, said "successive parliaments have given away their birthright" by ceding power to Brussels.
The referendum bill was backed by the Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition parties as well as most Conservatives. Both Labour and the Lib Dems want to remain in the EU.
The bill was opposed by the Scottish National Party, third-largest in the House of Commons, in part because it doesn't extend voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds.
SNP legislator Alex Salmond said the referendum was only being held as "a sop" to appease Conservative backbenchers.
"Nobody seriously believes that the prime minister wants to take this country out of the European Union," he said. "The referendum is a tactic."