Thursday

20th Feb 2020

'Should the UK remain a member of the EU?'

  • The referendum must be held by the end of 2017 (Photo: CGP Grey)

UK voters will be asked to decide if their country should remain in the EU, according to the bill setting out terms for the in/out referendum.

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” will be the question to appear on ballot papers when the poll is held in either 2016 or 2017.

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Although the ruling Conservative Party doesn’t have a majority in the House of Lords, the bill, which was published by the UK parliament on Thursday (28 May) is almost certain to pass with cross-party support.

More intriguing will be whether amendments to the question, franchise, or the provisions on campaign spending will be adopted.

Labour and the Scottish National party want 16 and 17-year olds to have the right to vote, arguing that the referendum will be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Opinion polls also suggest that young voters are more pro-European in their views.

For his part, Ukip leader Nigel Farage is anxious that there are strict rules on campaign spending to prevent a repeat of the 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC).

Backed by the financial muscle of the business lobby, the pro-EEC campaign in the 1975 referendum comfortably outspent the No side.

Having been badly beaten in the general election earlier this month, in which it campaigned against holding an EU referendum, the opposition Labour party now supports a poll which, it argues, should be held as soon as possible to reduce uncertainty for business.

The franchise will be similar to that for general elections, although citizens from the 52 other Commonwealth countries who are resident in the UK will be eligible to vote, including citizens from Ireland, Malta and Cyprus.

The bill states that the referendum must be held by the end of 2017, but there are divisions between government ministers on the optimal time.

Cameron’s office has mooted the prospect of holding the vote in May 2016, on the same day as elections fr the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, on grounds that this would boost turnout, and in a bid to cash in on the prime minister’s current popularity.

Meanwhile, George Osborne, the finance minister, and a likely contender to replace Cameron as prime minister in future, is believed to favour a later date to allow more time for the re-negotiation process on EU powers.

Cameron will hold meetings with the leaders of France, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands this week to sketch out his demands.

He wants to secure guarantees that unemployed EU migrants will be unable to access welfare benefits and ro prevent working migrants from claiming benefits for four years.

He wants more cosmetic changes, such as a British opt-out from EU treaty references to “ever closer union”.

He is also seeking assurances the eurozone will not be able to impose its will on the nine governments outside the currency bloc when negotiating changes to the single market.

In a BBC interview on Thursday, foreign minister Philip Hammond said the government is “very confident that over the course of the summer and perhaps onwards through the winter we will be able to negotiate a substantial package of reform”.

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