13 January 2016

Since the European Council summit in December there seems to be an assumption in the UK media and beyond that the EU referendum will be held in June. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s warning that this might be too early is based on such an assumption. This assumption is not without good reason – it is clear that the Government’s preference, as well as that of its EU partners, is to have the EU referendum done and dusted as soon as possible. However, there are a number of hurdles they need to overcome in order to make this possible.

Timeline for an EU referendum in June remains tight

It is worth reviewing the EU Referendum Act to work out the exact timeline and the hurdles that need to be overcome.

Firstly, any regulations modifying section 125 of the 2000 Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (which refers to restrictions on central and local government publishing material during referendums) “must be made not less than 4 months before the date of the referendum”. Passing such regulations would require a statutory instrument, which takes between four and six weeks to be approved. As such any changes to these rules would therefore need to be tabled by the government 22 weeks before any proposed EU referendum date. It entirely clear if the government will amend any of these rules but if they did want to do so for an EU referendum held in the last week of June, they would need to be tabled at the start of next week (18 January).

Secondly, there must of course be a deal at the European Council Summit on 17/18 February. While this looks possible, as Prime Minister David Cameron said, there are no guarantees.

Thirdly, if a deal is agreed in February, they must table the proposed date of the EU referendum immediately. The EU Referendum Act states that there must be “at least ten weeks” for the campaign to take place between the formal confirmation of the date and the day of the EU referendum itself. As Minister for Constitutional Reform John Penrose highlighted in comments to the House of Commons (H/T @cjchowarth), it will probably take six weeks for the statutory instrument confirming the date of the EU referendum to pass through Parliament – meaning there is 16 weeks between the announcement of the date and the day itself. This means, if the statutory instrument containing the date of the bill is tabled the Monday morning after the February EU council (22 February) then the earliest date for the referendum would be the week commencing 13 June.

Furthermore, as I noted on Monday, the government has to publish a number of pieces of literature ahead of the 10 week campaign period. There would only be the six week window between the announcement of the date and the 10 week period starting for them to do this which is again quite tight.

There is also the question of designating the lead Remain and Leave campaigns. This obviously needs to take place before the 10 week campaign begins. However, it is possible this could happen concurrently with the six week period for the passage of the statutory instrument confirming the date.

September still looks to be a possibility for the EU referendum

Clearly, there is a very tight timeline in terms of getting everything in place for a June referendum, with the final two Thursdays in June the only real options. Running into July does not seem to be viable for a number of reasons, not least that you hit issues such as school holidays which could complicate turnout. There would be little appetite to delay things beyond September unless serious problems arise in the negotiations. There is also little desire to have another party conference season dominated by Europe. With a September referendum before the Conservative Party Conference, the conference itself can be the start of the two sides coming back together and focusing on other issues (in an ideal world).

The EU referendum could still be in June but the timeline seems tighter than many people believe. As such September is still quite likely as well.