Robert Oxley is Campaign Director of Business for Britain.
George Osborne likes to be portrayed as a champion of hard-working families and, like many of those he seeks to champion, he has headed across the Channel for a summer trip. Despite the constant disruption to Calais ferries and the tunnel, the continued weakness of the Euro makes it a good time to be a Brit abroad in the EU. However, the Chancellor is not on his holidays. He is in Paris to push the case for Britain’s attempts to renegotiate our relationship with the EU. His sojourn to Paris comes at a time of immense speculation over when the referendum will actually take place.
June 2016, as reported in the weekend papers, is certainly one of the possible dates for the vote. While the Prime Minister has said that a referendum must happen before the end of 2017, those who have followed the machinations of the referendum process closely have long expected a vote to take place between April 2016 and October 2016. Holding an In/Out referendum in 2017 would pose problems internationally for the Government as both Germany and France go to the polls that year, restricting the flexibility of potential negotiating partners, while Britain is due to hold the EU presidency for the second half of 2017. Domestically, the longer David Cameron waits to hold a vote, the more he will fear the impact of ‘mid-term blues’ influencing the eventual result.
Thus, for the Prime Minister at least, it makes sense to hold an EU referendum next year. The problem is that holding a vote sooner rather than later will limit the scope for securing significant changes from the EU beforehand. Meaningful reforms are needed to put Britain’s relationship with the EU on a sustainable footing but, by choosing 2016 over 2017, he would limit his chances to secure Treaty change and the kind of EU reforms that he has spoken about in the past. A leaked document at June’s EU Council suggested Cameron recognises this is the case and that instead of seeking major reforms, he plans to focus the ‘In’ campaign on the ‘risks’ of Brexit. With this and the domestic concerns in mind, a vote in 2016 seems highly likely.
A big part of determining when a vote could be held next year is the technical negotiations currently being undertaken in Brussels. Once these have concluded, the final ‘deal’ will need to be presented to the European Council and the British people. Following the presentation of ‘the deal’ a referendum campaign period could then start in earnest. The earliest a deal could be completed and presented is at the EU Council in December. Time for the renegotiation has already been squeezed by issues such as Greece and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, but such a timetable would still allow a vote in April (ahead of various elections in May when the Government has said the referendum will not take place). A vote in either April or June (as suggested by the Independent on Sunday) would allow the campaigns to deploy activists who are already delivering local election leaflets to distribute EU referendum leaflets. This could be key for any pro-EU campaign, which has little to no committed grassroots support.
Another option would be a referendum in September. This would ensure that any campaigning period would not be complicated by local elections, would allow a little more time for a deal to be negotiated (and presented at the February EU Council) and would mean that campaigning would take place in the summer, when there is little EU business on the agenda. This would avoid the Government being troubled by long-standing purdah rules as EU discussions effectively shut down in August (although supposed problems of purdah clashing with EU business have been grossly and cynically exaggerated anyway). September rather than October would also avoid any row over a referendum distracting from the party conference season.
So where does George Osborne fit in? Well, as one former minister said last week, a row with the French is needed to convince the public that Britain is securing a new, significant deal. After years of pointing out the flaws with the EU, if the Conservatives were to recommend remaining ‘In’ a significant change in position will be required and that will have to be well-choreographed, with help from the EU more widely.
But that is not the Chancellor’s agenda. The potential Prime-Minister-in-waiting recognises that to keep the Conservative Party together he cannot just secure cosmetic changes to the EU. Renegotiation must be real and tangible, so no wonder he is leading the charge. After a succession of successful political budgets the Chancellor clearly feels he has the skills needed for such a large set-piece, but with so little time and an intransigent EU it remains to be seen how successful he can be.