Greg Hands given key role as Cameron mulls early EU referendum

Waterskiing sailor

Waterskiing sailor flying the Armed Forces Day flag, 10 May 2010 [UK Ministry of Defence/Flickr]

David Cameron could bring the UK referendum forward to next year following his surprise victory in last week’s (7 May) UK election, and has appointed a new minister to play a key role in negotiations.

The UK prime minister may seek to hold the poll next year, despite a manifesto pledge to stage it before the end of 2017.

Cameron’s government may use the momentum from its win to bring the vote forward, avoiding clashes with French and German national elections due in Spring 2017.

Britain will hold the rotating presidency of the EU during the latter half of 2017. Holding a vote before then could also avoid conflicts between the country’s attempt to negotiate a better deal for itself while simultaneously fulfilling its role as honest broker.

Cameron has previously said he would be “delighted” if renegotiation of the terms of UK membership could be agreed quickly and the vote brought forward.

Reassertion of Treasury superiority

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond – reappointed on Monday (11 May) – will both play pivotal roles in upcoming negotiations.

Cameron had not yet re-appointed Europe minister David Lidington as part of his round of government appointments yesterday (12 May).

Osborne is likely to play a more significant role in the talks than Hammond and his juniors within the Foreign Office, however, EURACTIV understands.

This is because, with Conservatives in full control of all ministries, the usual rules of British politics will re-assert themselves, allowing the Treasury its traditional jealously guarded dominance over other ministries including the Foreign Office.

“(We have) a very clear mandate to improve Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU and to reform the EU,” Osborne said yesterday in Brussels at a meeting of EU finance ministers.

“We go into the negotiations aiming to be constructive and engaged, but also resolute and firm and no one should underestimate our determination,” the UK finance minister added.

Hands – a West Berlin swimmer

In this context, the choice of Greg Hands to replace the defeated Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander as chief secretary to the Treasury – Osborne’s number two – is significant.

During a “gap year” in 1983, Hands worked in a West Berlin swimming pool, subsequently spending long stints in Cold War eastern Europe.

Fluent in German and French, he also speaks reasonable Czech and Slovak and has “working knowledge of three other Slavonic languages”.

Hands is likely to spearhead Osborne’s efforts to engage German Chancellor Angela Merkel in UK renegotiations, a well-placed Brussels source told EURACTIV.

He is known to have close links with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party in Germany, as well as acting as UK Parliamentary chairman of the Conservative Friends of Poland.

Pundits disagree over whether a quick referendum held next year might be likelier to produce an “in” or “out” result.

The pro-European lobby group Business for New Europe warned today against selecting an “arbitrary” date for a poll.

Pundits divided over early poll

“Any referendum creates uncertainty, so for some in the business community the earlier it is held, the better,” said campaign director Lucy Thomas.

“However, it is also important that enough time is given for the reform process, so that the right changes are made,” she added.

Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Business for Britain, was wary of bringing the referendum forward, saying: “Britain needs to get the best deal from the renegotiation, not fast-forward to the referendum…A rushed process would severely undermine the chances to secure a significant deal that both British business and voters could support and would waste the opportunity of a lifetime.”

By contrast Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think tank, said an early referendum could increase the likelihood of an ‘in’ vote, explaining: “The longer it is delayed, the more the climate of uncertainty will afflict the British economy and potentially deter foreign investment.”

“If the referendum happened at the end of 2017, some voters might vote against the EU only because they were fed up with Cameron,” Grant warned.

David Cameron's ruling Conservative party won an outright majority in Thursday's parliamentary election, winning 12 seats more than all the other parties combined, allowing them to govern alone.

Cameron has promised to renegotiate the country's relationship with the EU and then call a referendum by 2017 on whether to stay or leave, a decision with far-reaching implications for trade, investment and Britain's place in the world.

>> Read: Brexit referendum looms after Tory election victory

  • 2016: UK Prime Minister David Cameron could stage early referendum on UK membership of EU
  • Spring 2017: German and French general elections
  • end 2017: Cameron pledged referendum on EU membership

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