UK referendum: For the benefit of all in EU?

Newly emerging details confirm how difficult the road ahead is for David Cameron


Would it be a little churlish perhaps to point to the irony involved in a monarch, albeit a constitutional monarch, setting out “my government’s” programme to wrest back powers from the European Union in the name of democracy? But then, as Emerson put it, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, and we must take seriously our neighbour’s new great preoccupation, not least because it also threatens this country’s vital interests.

“My government,” Queen Elizabeth told the Commons yesterday in her 62nd Queen’s speech , “will renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union and pursue reform of the European Union for the benefit of all member states... Early legislation will be introduced to provide for an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union before the end of 2017.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has made clear the bill to run the first referendum on UK membership of the EU since 1975 will be published on Thursday with a parliamentary schedule that will allow it to reach a second stage debate by June and the prospect that the referendum could be held next year. The chances that any negotiations with EU partners about EU reform could be completed by then are slim, however.

But the prime minister and fellow ministers have already begun sounding out European leaders – Europe Minister David Lidington in Dublin on Tuesday, while Cameron met ccommission president Jean Claude Juncker two days ago and embarks today on a tour of European capitals – he hopes to convince partners to include debate on reform at an EU summit in Brussels next month.

The level of his ambition remains, however, vague, particularly over issues that could require treaty change, a prospect anathema to many member states unwilling to pen what they see as a can of worms – there are, for example, newly emerging difficulties involved in negotiating restrictions on migrant welfare rights that may require such changes.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that France and Germany have come up with new reform package to strengthen the 19-strong eurozone, but without treaty changes, reducing any possibility they might be persuaded to accept some of the UK’s more radical ideas.

The Government will take some comfort from Mr Cameron’s unexpected decision not to include a reference in the Queen’s Speech to the repeal of the Human Rights Act, merely to “proposals” on a Bill of rights, suggesting a consultation process rather than immediate legisaltion. The Tories’ commitment to weakening the influence of the European Court of Human Rights threatens, among other things, to jeopardise the Belfast Agreement, but it has in recent days begun to garner wider opposition including within his own party. There is a growing sense that Mr Cameron may not actually have the votes in the Commons to pass such a Bill.