London letter: Brexit referendum campaigning steps up
Britain’s debate on Europe heats up but referendum could be many months away
Europe minister David Lidington. “He [David Cameron] wants a deal that has substance, which he can honestly and confidently defend, campaign for.” Photograph: Clemens Bilan/AFP/Getty Images
Preparations for Britain’s referendum on its EU membership have stepped up a gear in recent weeks with the launch of campaign groups on each side of the debate. This week, Bank of England governor Mark Carney added to the sense of urgency with a speech at Oxford endorsing Britain’s continued membership of a reformed EU. Carney stressed that he was speaking solely about how EU membership affected the Bank of England’s operations, not assessing the pros and cons of being in Europe. But he will have been under no illusions about the potential impact of his remarks, just as his intervention ahead of last year’s Scottish referendum helped to tip the balance against independence.
Despite all this activity, the referendum is at least six months away and is unlikely to be held before next autumn. From the time David Cameron completes his negotiations with other EU leaders, time needed to process legislation and a statutory 10-week notice period for referendums mean it will be a minimum of four months before a vote can be held. EU leaders are due to discuss Britain’s demands at a summit in December but few in Brussels believe they will reach a deal at that meeting.
“In terms of timing, he’s been absolutely clear that he doesn’t want to have this issue hanging around for longer than necessary but he is not going to put speed ahead of substance. He wants a deal that has substance, which he can honestly and confidently defend, campaign for. And if that means it takes longer, it takes longer,” he said.
Britain’s EU partners have expressed frustration at the lack of detail from London about what Cameron actually wants. The prime minister has promised to flesh out his demands in a letter to the European Council early next month but Lidington believes he should keep his powder dry.
“My advice to him is not to publish a detailed negotiating position because a detailed negotiating position is seen either as an opening bid from which you can, of course, be negotiated down or it is seen by another group of people as the absolute minimum that you must get and any retreat from that is a devastating reverse.
“Whether you’re in politics or in business, the last thing you want to do is to publish a detailed negotiating position setting out your red lines and so on,” he said.
Cameron has identified his priorities as winning more sovereignty for Britain within the EU; increasing the competitiveness of the single market; a guarantee of “fairness” for EU member states outside the euro zone; and the issues of migration and welfare. Migration is by far the most potent of these politically in Britain, although the British government has made clear that its focus is on changing welfare rules rather than attacking the principle of free movement within the EU.
“I do think that, for the British people to be persuaded to support continued membership, there will need to be a clear recognition that the public concern here about the pull factors associated with welfare and migration have been taken into account,” Lidington said.
Lidington believes that the most strategically important change Britain is seeking concerns the relationship between the euro zone and those member states outside it.
He argues that it is essential, not just for Britain, but for the rest of Europe, that the euro zone should be allowed to integrate further without threatening the rights of those outside the currency.
“In one sense the potential deal is that we agree: okay, we’ll take our hands off the brake. If you want to integrate more closely, go ahead and do it; we won’t seek to stop you. But we need entrenched safeguards that the interests of the single market at 28 and decision taking at 28 and the duty of institutions of the EU to work for all 28 are properly respected,” he said.