The prospect of the UK holding an in-or-out of the EU referendum fills me with dread, but debate of the merits of holding this vote, and how each side might frame its messages are topics for blog entries in future. What voting no would mean is outlined in this blog entry; the comments there are also worth a look.

The point of this blog entry is to look at what the parameters for the referendum are, and what decisions about these might mean for the UK and the rest of the EU.

David Cameron re-iterated his determination to hold the referendum in his victory speech, and Cameron has repeatedly stated he wishes to “re-negotiate” Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

Parameter 1 – renegotiation, or reform for all
Cameron’s vocabulary (and indeed that from many UK politicians) often sounds like they go off to Brussels to win at the expense of other countries. This fits the confrontational, oppositional nature of British politics, spurred on by the newspapers. So the first issue is this: does renegotiation mean that the UK needs to get some special deal for itself, or would changing the EU itself (and hence for all Member States) actually suffice? The latter would actually be more achievable, and limit the annoyance in the EU institutions about the UK neatly summed up by Michiel van Hulten. In other words “we’re all winning” sounds more pleasant in Brussels than “we’ve got one over on you”.

Parameter 2 – changes to Treaties or not
A central issue. Try to change the TEU and TFEU and a pandora’s box is opened – all Member States and indeed other EU institutions will want a piece of the reform. Plus any Treaty reform requires the unanimous agreement of all Member States of the European Union, and national ratifications and possible referendums elsewhere. There might be some appetite for this route within the EU institutions – from Manfred Weber for instance. The alternative is to try to cobble together a series of reforms that are possible without Treaty change. This could be a combination of new Directives and Regulations (and repeal of already-existing Directives and Regulations) that can be passed through the regular legislative procedure without needing the unanimous agreement of all Member States (see Council Voting System), and possibly the use of the Passerelle system in the Treaties (that needs unanimity in the Council, but no national ratifications). Avoiding Treaty change makes the entire process simpler.

Parameter 3 – timing of the referendum
It is generally assumed that the referendum in the UK will take place in 2017, but this timing is questionable in my view, and is intrinsically connected with Parameter 2. Attempt Treaty change and it will take years and years, and is not achievable by 2017. Some promises of what might be changed might be agreed by then, but would Cameron dare put half-baked proposals to a referendum test? Even passing adequate new Directives and Regulations by 2017 might be a push. An alternative could hence be to move the referendum forward, to 2016, and to make it a more simple in-out, or push the referendum further into the future – to a point when deeper reforms may have been agreed, but to a period when Cameron’s time as leader and a further UK election is approaching.

Parameter 4 – the substance of the renegotiation / reforms
Intrinsically linked to Parameters 1 and 2 above. Cameron is going to have to try to find demands that appeal to his backbenchers and appeal to other EU Member States and do not generate immediate opposition within the EU institutions. His proposals will largely fall into two categories – changes to the institutional machinery of the EU, and changes to the policies of the EU. Most of the former – things like red cards for national parliaments, or re-introduction of the veto in areas where majority voting currently applies – are going to generate immediate opposition in many quarters, and would also need Treaty Change. A focus on policies will be somewhat easier. Some minor tightening of the rules about access to benefits for those moving within the EU might be acceptable, but a challenge to the principle of free movement (especially if it were seen as the UK getting special treatment) will almost certainly fail. David Davis has already been trying to back the government away from this issue. Tories have continually bleated that the EU ties up UK businesses in “red tape” and while I personally disagree with this line (and it ought to scare anyone on the left), this line nevertheless has plenty of allies in the EU institutions. A strong deregulation agenda, with genuine effort to complete the EU’s single market in the area of services, could be met positively in Brussels. A more authoritarian approach to surveillance and security issues might likewise find allies.

So then these are the core parameters for the referendum that need to be looked at in the next few months. Deal for one or for all, Treaty change or not, the date of the vote, and changes to policies or machinery. The answers to these questions are going to be central to the outcome of the referendum, and whether this vote ends up killing some of the remaning things that are good in the EU or if the EU can somehow emerge from this working a little better.


  1. Ken Adams

    I think you do not perhaps appreciate the reason for Cameron’s referendum is to keep Britain in the EU. Thus he does not want to achieve anything meaningful, only enough empty promises to enable him to claim a victory to a compliant media and bamboozle just enough people to vote to stay in.

  2. Steve Green

    The referendum will be in 2016 or 2017. Cameron is committed to the 2017 end date and it is politically impossible for him to push it back. We will learn in the next few days whether he brings it forward to 2016 as I expect. One to get it over with and not to dominate the entire time to the next election in 2020; two to speed up decision making before Germany and France get embroiled in their elections; thirdly not to hold the EU presidency at the time of the vote and fourthly so Cameron can retire in 2018, as promised ,for a new Tory leader to get ready for 2020.
    What does he want? It has to be something on free movement; that is what Tory and Labour activists heard on the doorsteps in the key marginal seats. Tinkering with benefits will help. I expect a stronger “6 months and out” policy change (as Belgium applied last year). In effect a return to free movement of workers not of people, as originally intended. The Tory and Labour fear for 2020 is that UKIP is becoming stronger in both Tory and Labour marginal seats. This is about blunt electoral winning in 2020. The positive element is that Osborne will lead the talks; a pragmatic pro-EU, with Hammond the existential antiEU bad guy. As Jon says the spin in the UK will be uncomfortable reading for proEUers in the other 27. Let it be; its not aimed at you. The referendum crunch will be the turnout of under 30s in the big English cities, Scotland and Wales. They will offset the older generation who perversely are anti-EU and the blue collar working class outside of the big cities.. Most of the traditional pro EU rhetoric will not work (peace? no that’s NATO etc). What does the EU do for a unskilled/semiskilled worker and family in a smaller market town, not working in an export related job and used to going to Benidorm for the sun and booze and living in a town with no history of inward migration until the last 7 years. That’s who Cameron and his political strategists will be thinking of to counter the British media which is owned by those who business empires are threatened by the EU (Murdoch, Rothermere, the Barclay twins). Now work on that!

  3. @Martin / @Andreas – I am largely in agreement with both of you. But to even try to get something more solid is going to mean a referendum after 2017, in the dying years of the government, and that’s going to be a horrible mess. I’m increasingly coming to the view that this has to be done early and swiftly, or else it’s going to be one hell of a mess all round.

  4. Andreas Kjeldsen

    Like Martin Holterman, I don’t really see a way around a treaty change either. I don’t have a very clear idea what Cameron’s “EU reform” specifically involves (and I wonder if he himself does), but some of the things he has talked about involve core parts of how the EU works – such as limitations on migration, blocking powers for national parliaments, and making “power flow away from Brussels” (whatever that means, but it must involve some change in the mechanics of legislation).

    Another interesting question is, what happens if Cameron actually gets what he wants and there’s a treaty change drawn up, but the new treaty is then rejected in a referendum in another member state? Then the Lisbon Treaty would still stand, and Cameron would have nothing to show for his troubles and be in a very difficult position re. his own referendum.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this, and I don’t see how reform without Treaty change could be acceptable to the Eurosceptics. In fact, I think changing only the Free Movement Directive and a few more pieces of secondary legislation like that is the perfect recipe for the grandmother of all civil wars within the Tory party. Anyone who’s even thinking about taking the UK out of the EU will want something more solid and more drastic than secondary legislation.

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