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There have been several stories over the past few days claiming that UK Prime Minister David Cameron is now thinking about bringing the EU referendum forward to 2016, rather than holding it in 2017 – his self-imposed deadline. But would this be the right choice? Open Europe’s Mats Persson considers the upsides and downsides.
12 May 2015
Whether or not an early EU referendum is advisable – as opposed to one held in, say, late 2017 – depends primarily on which one of three potential end goals you subscribe to:
If one subscribes to the first aim, then there’s a strong argument for holding the referendum very soon, whilst Cameron has political momentum and the opinion polls show a majority for staying in. In addition, the “Out” campaign is all over the place at the moment. Strike while the iron is hot.
If one subscribes to the second aim, it’s less clear but one can argue that there needs to be time for the momentum behind an ‘Out’ vote to grow – as in Scotland (unless the aim is to get a quick and dirty borderline ‘Yes’ vote and use that to campaign for Out down the road on the basis that EU reform is an illusion).
However, we’re firmly in the third camp. We think this is an absolutely unique and massively important opportunity to reform the EU. From that point of view, here are the potential upsides and downsides of an early referendum.
Taken together, the risk of an early referendum is that it falls between two stools: It doesn’t leave enough time and momentum to achieve substantial reform in Europe and therefore may generate a referendum result too close to call (read this guest post from Open Europe advisory council member David Frost for more on this), whilst splitting the Tories right down the middle in the process. In other words, it delivers neither EU reform nor a UK democratic settlement.
On the other hand, if reform can be achieved in 2016 and a referendum held during that year, probably towards the end – then there’s no obvious argument against it. But the primary question must be: what’s the best way to achieve real and lasting reform of the EU.