David Cameron has dismissed calls to delay a European referendum in June, following a joint letter from the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister did, however, guarantee that the vote will not happen within six weeks of the devolved elections. It is the strongest indication to date that a referendum on Britain’s membership in Europe could be held on the rumoured date of 23 June – seven weeks after the Holyrood election on May 5.
Responding to a question from the SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson, Mr Cameron said: "There is no agreement, so no date has yet been fixed for the referendum." He said former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond had called for a six week gap between the May contests and the referendum "and I can guarantee that won't happen".
The Prime Minister added: "I do respect the former First Minister of Scotland who said six weeks was what was necessary.
"I also respect the electorates of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the basis that I think people are perfectly capable of making up their minds in a local election or in a Scottish parliamentary election, or in a Welsh assembly election and then, a period of some weeks afterwards, making up their mind all over again on the vital question of the European Union."
Mr Cameron later added further fuel to speculation of a June 23 referendum, telling MPs that if a deal is agreed at the February summit, four months "would not be too short" a period before staging the vote.
In a joint letter Nicola Sturgeon, Carwyn Jones, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness warn that with elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in May, a referendum campaign running at the same time "risks confusing issues at a moment when clarity is required."
They write: “As you know, elections take place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on 5 May. We believe that holding a referendum as early as June will mean that a significant part of the referendum campaign will necessarily run in parallel with those elections and risks confusing issues at a moment when clarity is required.
“It will be virtually impossible for the political parties in our respective territories to plan effectively for, and where appropriate work together on the referendum campaign while our own elections are in progress.
They add: “We believe that the European referendum is of vital importance to the future of the whole United Kingdom and the debate leading up to it should, therefore, be free of other campaigning distraction.”
The independent Electoral Reform Society has also warned that holding the referendum in June would risk “undermining the upcoming assembly elections”. The society believes the June vote could overshadow May elections.
Stephen Brooks, Director of Electoral Reform Society Cymru, said: “An EU referendum vote so soon after the Assembly elections would risk undermining the elections themselves – knocking the debate off course and away from issues which are actually devolved.
He added: “April and May will see the EU debate reaching its peak if the vote was to be held in June – potentially overshadowing the crucial process of Welsh voters choosing their next government.
“A June EU vote would only serve to add more confusion to an already busy day of elections, with Police and Crime Commissioners also being picked – despite issues of justice and policing not being fully devolved.
Additional reporting by PA.
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