David Cameron is drawing up plans to bring forward an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union by a year to 2016 in order to avoid a politically dangerous clash with the French and German elections in 2017.
As the prime minister declared that he had a mandate from the electorate to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership, government sources said Downing Street was keen to move quickly on the timing of the referendum.
“The mood now is definitely to accelerate the process and give us the option of holding the referendum in 2016,” one source said. “We had always said that 2017 was a deadline rather than a fixed date.”
A parliamentary bill to approve the referendum will be included in the Queen’s speech on 27 May. The bill will be formally tabled in the House of Commons shortly afterwards to ensure that the prime minister has the option of holding the referendum next year.
Government sources say there are key factors that could accelerate the momentum towards a 2016 referendum. The early introduction of the bill – and the Tories’ surprise parliamentary majority – will mean that it could enter the statute book by the end of this year if it is given a reasonably easy ride in the House of Lords.
If peers break with the Salisbury convention, which says that the upper house should not delay measures in the winning party’s election manifesto, then the government would have to force the bill through using the Parliament Act. This would take place a year after the bill’s second reading in the Commons which means the prime minister could override the Lords in June 2016. This means the referendum could be held in July or after the summer break in September 2016.
Cameron is likely to signal his determination to press ahead with the EU negotiations by reappointing the Europe minister, David Lidington, who is the longest-serving holder of the post after being appointed in 2010.
Another factor pointing to an early referendum, according to government sources, is a change in calculations in Brussels and in some key EU capitals after the prime minister’s surprise election win.
One source said: “It was made pretty clear that the European council [the grouping of the EU’s 28 leaders] would not engage seriously until the election result was clear. Now they know they have to deal with us and they want the UK to stay in the EU. We expect the negotiations to take place in 2015 and 2016 so they finish well ahead of the French presidential elections [in the spring of 2017] and the German federal elections [in September 2017].”
The newly installed government expects that the negotiations would lead to a legally binding protocol encompassing the UK’s demands. But EU leaders have said they would only revise the Lisbon treaty if Britain voted yes in the referendum.
Government sources took heart from an intervention by José Manuel Barroso, the former president of the European commission, who said the prime minister had a greater chance of success after enhancing his authority in the election.
Cameron signalled his determination to press ahead with the referendum when he declared that he now had an electoral mandate for reform. As he arrived for Monday’s meeting of the 1922 committee of MPs at Westminster, he said: “We have a mandate. It is going to be tough.”
The remarks show Cameron knows that he will face a difficult battle in the four key areas where he will seek to renegotiate Britain’s membership terms. These aim to:
- Give Britain an opt-out from the historic EU ambition to forge an “ever closer union” of the peoples of Europe.
- Create safeguards to ensure that changes in the single market cannot be imposed on non-eurozone members by the eurozone.
- Tighten access to in-work and out-of-work benefits for EU migrants.
- Hand greater powers to national parliaments to block EU legislation.
Britain was given a taste of the challenge in the EU negotiations when eastern European leaders warned the prime minister not to restrict the ability of EU migrants to travel to the UK. Europe ministers from Slovakia, Hungary and Poland told the Financial Times that the free movement of migrant workers was a red-line issue for them.
Britain also found itself at odds with the European commission over plans to require all EU member states to take in quotas of migrants. Theresa May, the home secretary, rejected the proposal.
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