LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron pleaded with Conservative Party lawmakers on Monday to drop their support for a national referendum on Britain leaving the European Union, comparing the bloc and its economic crisis to a house on fire that needs everyone's help.
Some 60 legislators in Cameron's Conservative Party have signed a motion calling for a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU, leave it, or renegotiate membership, but the government has ordered its lawmakers to vote against it or face disciplinary action.
Cameron urged his party's lawmakers not to vote for a referendum, saying the "timing is wrong," given the European economic crisis.
"When your neighbor's house is on fire, your first impulse should be to help them to put out the flames — not least to stop the flames reaching your own house," Cameron told the House of Commons. "This is not the time to argue about walking away, not just for their sakes, but for ours."
Monday's vote, which was triggered by a 100,000-signature public petition on the prime minister's website, is nonbinding. It will fail anyway because the other main parties oppose it, but any rebellion would be an embarrassment for Cameron.
The issue of Europe has long divided his Conservative Party, and also split Britain's governing coalition. Its junior partners, the Liberal Democrats, are strongly pro-Europe.
Britain is a member of the 27-nation EU, but is not among the 17 countries that use the euro single currency, and are struggling to hammer out a bailout for indebted member Greece.
Conservative lawmaker Bernard Jenkin, one of those backing a referendum, said most British people want a vote on EU membership.
"David Cameron is not just taking on the Conservative Party, he's taking on the whole of public opinion. The vast majority think it's time we had a say on our membership."
Cameron said he agrees with the need for fundamental EU reform and is committed to "bringing back more powers" from Brussels. But he said it is in Britain's national interest to remain part of the EU.
"Those who are supporting today's motion, but don't actually want to leave the EU, I say to you this: I respect your views, we disagree about ends, not about means, I support your aims," the prime minister told lawmakers. "Like you, I want fundamental reform, like you I want to refashion our membership of the EU so that it better serves our nation's interests. The time for reform is coming, that is the prize, let us not be distracted from seizing it."Comment on this story
Foreign Secretary William Hague, a longtime euroskeptic, said that with the EU mired in a debt crisis and Britain's economy fragile, a referendum "would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time."
"Europe is undergoing a process of change and in an in-out referendum people would want to know where the change was going to finish up before they voted," Hague told the BBC. "Clearly an in/out referendum is not the right idea."
Associated Press Writer Jill Lawless contributed to this report.