EU Referendum

EU referendum: treaty blues


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Shortly after it had been delivered, Bruno Waterfield picked up the implications of the Barroso speech, warning us that a referendum would be in the offing if a treaty went ahead.

However, while also now reported by the Daily Wail, a scenario painted by Bruno is of government lawyers supposedly looking at ways of having a referendum, and recommending that "Britain stays in the EU without joining a political union". Yet, according to government insiders who are considering the options, the situation is far more complex than either newspaper makes out.

Any treaty which comes out of the process that is clearly under way is unlikely to see the light of day until 2016 at the earliest.  But, when it is finalised, it is expected to create a political union for the eurozone members only. The UK will not be expected to join, and nor can she without first joining the single currency, which is not going to happen.

Therefore, the problem confronting not the lawyers but the political strategists is how to present the treaty to the British public. On the face of it, with multiple opt-outs, it will not involve any significant transfer of power from the UK to Brussels. Therefore, despite confident assertions to the contrary, the so-called "referendum lock" may not apply, and a referendum may not be required on strictly legal grounds.

However, public perception will be of the UK being shunted into an "inferior" position as part of the outer circle, with significantly reduced influence. Under such circumstances, a referendum would be difficult to avoid. Such an event, though, would pose the risk of blocking the ratification of a treaty which does not apply directly to the UK, with profound diplomatic consequences.

Confronted with this problem, there is also the need to make promises in advance of the general election in order to "park" the EU as an issue. Thus, following an expected commission proposal for a new treaty before the euro elections, strategists are looking at the possibility of offering an in-out referendum as the price of giving the new treaty an easy passage through the ratification process.

That now raises the possibility of a plebiscite some time after 2016, asking for public approval of Britain's new status within the EU. The thinking is that this could be framed in terms of Britain having gained some concessions during the treaty negotiations, in which case the government of the day will be supporting a "yes" vote.

Bearing in mind that this could be after a Labour victory in the general election, we could have the Conservatives in opposition supporting a "no" vote, completely changing the electoral calculus.

With so many ramifications, though, no decisions have yet been made. But, one thing is becoming clear. With the "colleagues" determined on a new treaty, the issue of Britain's continued membership of the EU is about to be thrown wide open in a way we haven't seen since 1975.

All of a sudden, there is everything to play for.