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UK Politics

The ins and outs of a European referendum

What happens if there’s another Coalition - and what about Scottish independence?


Q What happens if the European Union backs away from the negotiations on a new treaty to entrench reforms to the eurozone?

A Although EU leaders cooled on the idea of negotiating a new treaty last month, David Cameron believes there will be one eventually. His “strong preference” is to “enact these changes for the entire EU, not just for Britain”. But if there is no appetite for a new treaty, he would still table Britain’s demands for a “new settlement” and force its EU partners to the negotiating table.

Q What happens if Mr Cameron is not happy with the new deal he secures for the UK?

A The €64,000 question. The Prime Minister said he is “optimistic” about winning a good enough new deal for Britain, so he could recommend staying in the EU in the referendum. Hardline Tory Eurosceptics think he is unlikely to secure such a settlement. They expect to vote No in the referendum, and want to hear Mr Cameron say he is prepared to do so. In practice, he might have to contemplate recommending a No vote if other EU leaders called his bluff. But he does not want to say so – yet—as such an open threat to leave the EU would further alienate the other leaders.

Q What if the Conservatives  fail to win an overall majority  at the 2015 election and  form another coalition with  the Liberal Democrats?

A Mr Cameron said a referendum will happen by the end of 2017 “if I am Prime Minister”, But life would not be that simple. The Liberal Democrats oppose an in/out referendum now and it is difficult to imagine them changing their mind. They could join forces with Labour and vote down the legislation needed to call a referendum, or even pull out of such a coalition.

Q Could Britain really persuade the rest of the EU to exempt it from the “ever closer union” envisaged by the bloc’s founding fathers in 1957?

A Conservative Eurosceptics are delighted that Mr Cameron is aiming so high. Such a win would formalise a two-tier EU. But other EU members are highly unlikely to give Britain such special treatment, or demolish one of the Union’s tablets of stone.

Q What powers might be returned from the EU to Britain?

A Mr Cameron did not issue a shopping list today but gave some clues, citing social affairs, the environment and crime. He stressed the importance of the Foreign Office’s root-and-branch review of which functions should be carried out by Brussels and London, due to be completed next year. EU diplomats suggest the UK might be allowed a symbolic victory on the EU’s working time directive, but rule out an opt-out from the entire Social Chapter, which other nations see as integral to the single market. There is strong opposition in Paris and Berlin to an “à la carte” Europe and Britain being allowed to “cherry-pick” which bits it wants.

Q How will the proposed Europe referendum affect Scotland?

A Alex Salmond the SNP First Minister, is already arguing that the best way Scotland, which is predominantly pro-European, can be sure of remaining in the EU is to vote to leave the UK in the referendum on Scottish independence in the autumn of 2014. Mr Cameron’s negotiations with the EU will begin on the assumption that the UK does not split.

But if Scotland voted to break away, the Europe referendum would only involve England, Wales and Northern Ireland. If Scotland voted No to independence, Mr Salmond could claim that Scotland could be forced to leave the EU against the wishes of its people. If Scotland voted Yes to independence, automatic membership of the EU would be unlikely if there were question marks over the UK staying in. A possible constitutional nightmare.