David Cameron has promised to hold an EU referendum before 2017 is over, but there have been no more details on when exactly it will take place. Some Eurosceptics believe the Prime Minister will announce the date in his speech at Tory conference in a few weeks, but most expect he would like it to be held next year.
Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton has revealed that the government is considering holding the vote in April 2016. This would mean finishing off the renegotiation at ‘breakneck speed’, primarily to take advantage of a Corbyn-lead Labour party in flux. So far, there are three potential dates the campaigns believe are likely. Here are the ups and downs of each of them:
April 2016 – When the EU Referendum Bill first landed, campaigners predicted the government might push for the earliest possible date and they have duly prepared for next spring. The bill allows for a quick process, so April wouldn’t be out of the blue — but it is not that far away. The biggest challenge with an April vote is preparing a final deal to be presented at the December meeting of the European Council, which leaves little time to gain any major concessions. As Newsnight pointed out, this means the campaign would begin in early February — allowing for the statutory ten weeks of campaigning — and the bill would have to make its way through Parliament by the end of January. Given how controversial even the wording of the referendum question has been, it is a very optimistic timetable.
June 2016 – this is judged as a more likely date by referendum campaigners. Many in Westminster suspect No.10 wanted to hold the referendum in May next year, but the Electoral Commission has advised against that. Plus, the SNP is likely vote against a bill that would see a referendum clash with the Holyrood elections. But holding it in June would leave the London Mayor, local and Scottish elections in tact, while not letting the whole process drag on. Cameron would have to present his final deal at February’s Council meeting, which again does not leave a huge amount of time for substantial renegotiation.
September 2016 – those who want to see substantial reform judge next autumn as the best date. It’s also the one Andrew Lansley predicted in his leaked speech notes. There would be no EU or Parliamentary business going on during the summer, which would help dampen the purdah row. A precedent has been set with the Scottish referendum in September 2014 too. Cameron would have until the June meeting of the European Council to prepare his deal, which would give the government a whole 10 months to get other countries onside. But in Westminster, this means the referendum would take up much of the government’s attention for the another year.
There is another advantage with June or September. The Dutch take over the EU presidency at the beginning of 2016 and they are seen to be sympathetic towards Britain’s desire for reform. If the referendum is held during these two months, it means the deal will be presented at a Council meeting under their stewardship.
No.10 is keen to get the referendum out of the way as soon as possible. We learnt at the weekend that George Osborne wasn’t keen to hold it at all. Politically, it’s easy to see why the government wants to get the vote done and focus on running Britain/causing problems for the Labour party. But for those who have waited years for this referendum, they are unhappy at the rush to get it over. ‘It appears the whole process has been very quick and the renegotiation has been watered down quite significantly,’ says one source on the ‘No’ campaign. ‘The government’s focus seems to on presentation more than substance’.