Cameron considers EU referendum

The prime minister has said he might hold an EU referendum.

David Cameron has said that he might call for a referendum on Britain's relations with the EU if it demands more powers.

Cameron is under increasing pressure from Tory backbenchers to hold a referendum as the eurozone crisis proceeds. He said, in an article for the Sunday Telegraph, that he would need "the full-hearted support of the British people" for a decision:

The fact is the British people are not happy with what they have – and frankly neither am I. Put simply, for those of us outside the eurozone, far from being too little Europe there is too much of it. Too much cost, too much bureaucracy, too much meddling in issues that belong to nation states or civil society or, indeed, individuals.
Whole swaths of legislation covering social issues, working time and home affairs should, in my view, be scrapped.

Douglas Alexander told Sky News that the conservatives were confused about Europe. He said:

It’s extraordinary. In the space of 24 hours we have the Telegraph saying that Prime Minister has ruled a referendum out and now he’s ruled one in – it’s a shambles. What we heard from William Hague this morning is that there’s been no change in the Government’s position.

They are now sending out senior ministers to explain a confused government policy, but what should worry us all is that the motivation for the decision doesn’t seem to be the future interests of Britain but the present difficulties of the Prime Minister.

William Hague said on the Sunday BBC Marr show that the government position had not essentially changed, but that there was a new debate over EU membership.

David Cameron, Photograph, Getty Images
Credit: Getty
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Something is missing from the UK’s draft transition agreement with the EU

The talks could go to extra time.

The European Union has published its draft transition agreement with the United Kingdom, setting out the terms of the standstill period after March 2019, when the UK will have formally left the EU, but its new relationship with the bloc has not yet been negotiated.

There is a lot in there, and the particularly politically-difficult part as far as the government is concerned is fishing: under the agreement, the United Kingdom will remain subject to the Common Fisheries Policy during the period of transition, and two Scottish Conservative MPs, both of whom have large fishing communitiesin their seats, are threatening to vote against the deal as it stands.

But the more interesting part is what isn’t in there: any mechanism to extend the transition should the United Kingdom and the EU be unable to agree a new relationship by 2020. This is something that people on both sides believe is likely to be needed – but as it stands, there is no provision to do so.

The political problem for Theresa May is that some pro-Brexit MPs fear that transition will never end (which is why she persists in calling it an “implementation period” in public, despite the fact it is as clear as day that there will be nothing to be implemented, as the future relationship will only have been agreed in broad outline). So finding the right moment to include the ability to make transition open-ended is tricky.

The danger for the government (and everyone else) is that the moment never arrives, and that the United Kingdom either ends up making a agreement in haste, or not at all, in 2020.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.