Osborne Says No Obstacle to Holding U.K. EU Vote in Late 2017

  • Europe minister Lidington had suggested timing was unlikely
  • U.K. `making pretty good progress' in talks, chancellor says

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said he wouldn’t rule out holding a referendum on U.K. membership of the European Union in the second half of 2017, suggesting some disagreements remain within the government on how soon to timetable the vote.

Britain’s six-month EU presidency scheduled to start in July 2017 doesn’t mean a referendum shouldn’t be held in the period, though it would be close to the end-2017 deadline Prime Minister David Cameron has set for the vote, Osborne told Parliament’s Treasury Committee in London on Tuesday.

“The point you make about the EU presidency, the British presidency of the council, I don’t see that as an obstacle,” Osborne said. “We’re going to try and negotiate this as soon as we can, provided we get the agreement, but if we have to have the referendum in the latter part of 2017 we will do so.”

Osborne’s remarks contradict concerns expressed by Europe Minister David Lidington, who told upper-house lawmakers on Oct. 12 that holding the vote in that period would be “challenging” and that such timing wasn’t the “optimum solution.”

The referendum bill, which will enshrine the terms of the vote into law, states that the vote can’t be held to coincide with local, Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament elections, which will be held on May 5 next year and May 4 in 2017, but otherwise doesn’t give any specific timing.

‘Good Deal’

“We’ve given ourselves, and Parliament has given us, two years in which to get the best possible deal for Britain,” Osborne said. “If we get a good deal we feel we can recommend to British people, there’s no point in waiting, but it depends on getting a good deal.”

While both Cameron and Osborne have stepped up the pace of negotiations to gain support for Britain’s reforms, the European Commission has described some of the demands, such as curbing benefits available to those in work, as “direct discrimination” against other EU nationals, suggesting areas of disagreement remain.

Osborne said negotiations have now reached the “substantive part” of the process and that Britain has spoken to all other EU members.

“Broadly speaking things are much more positive than people anticipated,” he said. “We’re making pretty good progress, but challenging days lie ahead.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.