How binding can an EU referendum be?

 

Bill

The House of Commons is debating the Referendum Bill on Monday, which can bind the British government but cannot bind the European Union.

Two arch-critics of the EU, Philip Davies MP and David Nuttall MP, have proposed that if the referendum is in favour of leaving the EU, the government should give formal notice of withdrawal within 28 days of the vote and there should not be another referendum before withdrawal is completed.

The intention is to prevent the government using a close vote for withdrawal or a low turnout to avoid what EU critics have fought for years to achieve.

While both these proposed amendments are within the power of the British government to achieve, a third proposal is not —that withdrawal must be completed within two years of serving notice of departing.

The UK leaving the EU

Leaving the EU is not a unilateral action. It involves complex discussions between EU institutions and the British government about the terms of subsequent relations between those parties.

The EU is notorious for being slow in arriving at decisions. British withdrawal will mean repealing obligations and agreeing how the UK will relate in future to a bloc of countries with which it has continuing political, economic and security ties.

These cannot be dealt with in an all-night session of the European Council or a one-day trip to Berlin or Brussels.

Banning a second referendum

An amendment proposing a ban on a second referendum is intended to stop the government reneging on the referendum decision on the grounds that the price of withdrawal is more than the British electorate had been aware of when it voted.

Those most strongly in favour of getting out see leaving as a matter of political principle, not an economic calculation.

The government has tacitly accepted that all the conditions of Britain’s future relationship with the EU will not be known when the referendum is held.

In current negotiations it is seeking statements of the EU’s intent to give positive consideration to its demands in future. Any change requiring alteration of an EU treaty clause, such as removing the commitment to an ever closer European Union, could only take place in an intergovernmental conference, unlikely to be called until the next decade.

The government’s desire to hold a referendum sooner rather than later increases the likelihood that some advances in reducing the UK’s obligations to the EU will not be formally confirmed when the referendum ballot is held.

EU critics are afraid the government will seek to capitalise on short-term popularity to rush through a vote regardless of incomplete negotiations.

Critics want the bill to require that regulations affecting the vote come into force not less than six months before the referendum period. This allows more time for events, whether in Calais, Greece or Britain, to make the EU appear less attractive

Third reading

Although the third reading debate in the Commons cannot take amendments to the bill, this will be followed by debate in the House of Lords, which can make amendments.

Because the government lacks a majority there, the Lords can alter what the third reading proposes. Whatever the collective view of the EU in the Lords, it can use its powers to make amendments that will improve the information that the electorate has when the time comes to vote for the UK to stay in or out of the European Union.

Professor Richard Rose is a UK in a Changing Europe commissioning fund awardee and director of the Centre for the Study of Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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