UK referendum plans a ‘recipe for confusion’, warn Lords

House of Lords

The House of Lords has re-opened the prospect of a climbdown on the EU's Customs Union [ukhouseoflords/Flickr]

The UK government has been criticised for its handling of the referendum on British membership of the EU by the House of Lords, which called the reform plans a “recipe for confusion”.

In a report published today (28 July), the House of Lords’ European Union Committee listed several aspects of the UK government’s preparations that it said are still unclear. The House of Lords is Britain’s second chamber of parliament and the committee scrutinises British EU policy.

The committee bemoaned the lack of detail over the EU reforms that Prime Minister David Cameron is pushing for. It also criticised the lack of clear timetable or detail over how to make the vote legally binding. 

Chair of the EU Committee Lord Boswell said, “We’re also concerned about the lack of transparency. It’s vital that Parliament and the public are kept informed, and are not simply presented with a done deal at the end of the process.”

The committee called for the referendum to take place “as soon as possible” and before the UK takes over the rotating European Council presidency in the second half of 2017.

The Independent on Sunday reported over the weekend that Prime Minister David Cameron plans to hold the referendum in June 2016. Cameron has previously said the referendum would take place by the end of 2017.

The House of Lords report also called on the government to identify the EU leaders it will partner with on reform negotiations.

On Sunday and Monday (26-27 July), Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne met with French officials in Paris as part of his campaign for EU reform.

“The referendum in Britain is an opportunity to make the case for reform across the EU,” Osborne said in Paris.

Osborne is scheduled to visit other European capitals to push the UK’s bid for a “new settlement” for the EU.

>>Read: Osborne starts off EU reform roadshow in Paris

The House of Lords report said the government still needs to clarify what roles the British Prime Minister, Chancellor and Foreign Secretary as well as the EU institutions will have in the UK referendum.

Peter Wilding, director of pro-European campaign group British Influence said, “It is important to be both clear and forthright in what Britain wants. If we’re not, then the opponents of British membership of the European Union will occupy ground. The government needs to occupy not only the territory of renegotiation but the language of it.”

The EU Committee’s report is its first in a series on the UK referendum announced for the coming months.

Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of Business for Britain: "The Committee's recommendations that Parliament is kept informed about the progress of the renegotiation and that the reforms achieved are made legally binding are welcome. The priority should now be to deliver a fundamental change in Britain's relationship with the EU, rather than setting an arbitrary date for the referendum."

Britain’s governing Conservative party won an absolute majority in the UK general election on 7 May 2015. With 12 more MPs than the other parties combined, the Conservatives no longer have to rely on a coalition partner.

Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union. The renegotiation will be followed by a referendum by the end of 2017, to decide whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU.

If he achieves the reforms, Cameron will campaign to stay in. Otherwise, the Conservatives might campaign to leave the EU. This decision could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.

Some other European countries are ready to listen to Cameron's concerns on issues such as immigration, and may be prepared to make limited concessions to keep Britain in the bloc.

But EU leaders also have their red lines, and have ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.

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