Senior MPs and Foreign Office officials have raised concerns about the UK’s ability to conduct its next six-month presidency of the EU – scheduled for the second half of 2017 – because it is likely to coincide with an in/out referendum if the Tories win the next general election.
The UK is next due to take the chair of EU meetings and business from 1 July 2017 until the end of that year, with UK ministers chairing meetings and taking responsibility for forging agreements among the 28 member nations, as well as setting a British agenda during its period at the helm.
But MPs and senior mandarins believe it could prove unworkable, and that the UK might well have to apply to have the presidency shelved, because David Cameron has promised to hold an in/out referendum by the end of 2017. EU member states take turns to hold the presidency. The last time the UK held the reins was in the second half of 2005.
The Observer has learned that the issue is already causing headaches within the Foreign Office, which is in the initial stages of planning the next UK term as president, amid growing uncertainty about whether the country will even be in the EU after 2017.
A senior Foreign Office source said that, if Cameron were still prime minister and called a 2017 referendum, the ability of UK ministers to serve as neutral chairpersons of EU meetings would be in serious question. “It will be very difficult, and if the prime minister finds himself recommending a British exit it will be unworkable,” said the source.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader and a member of the foreign affairs select committee, said that, if the Tories were still in power and had called a referendum, a British presidency would be chaotic. “It would not be so much a paradox as a parody, with Tory ministers in charge of the EU while trying to leave it,” he said.
Cameron has made clear in recent months that, if he cannot renegotiate the UK’s membership, including changes to the EU’s founding principle of “freedom of movement”, then he may be prepared to recommend an exit in a referendum. In the event that the Tories win the next election, a so-called “Brexit” has become more likely, after the German and French set their faces against fundamental changes to the EU treaties, including freedom of movement.
Conservative Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash, chairman of the Commons European scrutiny committee, who wants the referendum brought forward to 2016, said: “It would be chaos. You could have some ministers in charge of EU meetings who were known to be in favour of the UK leaving and some who were in favour of staying in.”
Charles Grant, director of the thinktank the Centre for European Reform, said that, if a Tory government were to recommend staying in the EU during a referendum campaign in 2017, then it might be possible to hold a reasonably successful British presidency. But if a Tory government were recommending withdrawal, the problems would be legion. “You could have a situation where the UK as president was trying to prevent agreement and its ministers then blamed the French and Germans to strengthen the case for us leaving.”
Richard Corbett, a Labour MEP who used to work as an adviser to the ex-president of the European council, Herman Van Rompuy, said a British presidency of the EU that overlapped with an in/out referendum would be a farce. “It is clear that Cameron did not think of this when he set out his referendum plans.”
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