Prime Minister David Cameron’s government announced the question that voters in Britain will be asked in the referendum on European Union membership.
The EU Referendum Bill, published Thursday, follows the advice of the Electoral Commission and proposes asking: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” Legislation to allow the vote to take place by the end of 2017, following a renegotiation of EU membership terms, was given priority in the government’s program announced Wednesday.
According to Sara Hobolt, professor of politics at the London School of Economics, the insertion of the word “remain” and the fact that the pro-membership answer is “yes” might give that side the edge.
“People have a status-quo bias,” Hobolt said in a telephone interview. “That it’s on the ‘yes’ side and that it’s ‘remain’ should be to the advantage of the ‘in’ camp. But attitudes in this kind of thing are hugely malleable. The campaign will matter.”
Cameron begins a two-day, four-country tour of other EU countries on Thursday in which he’ll set out the changes to Britain’s relationship with the EU that he’s looking for.
He’ll have lunch in The Hague with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and dinner in Paris with French President Francois Hollande. On Friday he’ll have breakfast with Poland’s Ewa Kopacz in Warsaw, then lunch with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
“We would like the U.K. to stay in the European Union, but as much as we say, yes, the union can be improved, we can’t agree to its dismantling,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said today in an interview on France Inter radio. “It’s like they’ve joined a football club. You can’t say halfway through the match that it’s rugby.”
The trip had been planned to start with a fifth meal, breakfast in Copenhagen with Helle Thorning-Schmidt, but that was canceled after the Danish premier called an early election.
Cameron’s list of desired changes includes giving national parliaments the power to block EU legislation, cutting regulations affecting businesses and placing restrictions on welfare claims by immigrants.
“The advice we are getting is that we will need treaty change in order to underpin particularly the changes on migration and welfare benefits,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Thursday in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” show. “If our partners do not agree with us, do not work with us to deliver that package, then we rule nothing out.”
The government promised on Wednesday the legislation would be moved “early” in the parliamentary session. The official position on the timing of the vote itself remains simply that it will be before the end of 2017. However, there is a case for holding the vote sooner, if Cameron can argue he has secured meaningful reforms. Business leaders have also urged an early vote to limit uncertainty that might damage investment.
While a referendum in 2016 remains possible, “we’re certainly not going to trade substantive reform just for getting it done quickly,” Hammond said.
France and Germany both have elections in 2017, which could make it harder for them to appear to give ground to Britain. And in 2016, elections are already being held in Scotland and London, places where the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party performs less well than in the rest of Britain.
“That Cameron is opting to give the pro-EU side the positive ’Yes’ suggests strongly that his negotiations are so much fudge,” UKIP leader Nigel Farage said in an e-mailed statement. “He has already decided which way he wants the answer to be given, without a single power repatriated.”
Farage campaigned for the May 7 general election on a platform of withdrawing from the EU and cutting immigration, an approach that quadrupled the party’s vote. UKIP secured 13 percent of votes, the third biggest proportion, while securing only one seat in the House of Commons.