BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond said on Tuesday that Britain’s EU referendum could only happen next year if negotiations that are unlikely to turn fully serious after December are concluded by May or June.
Speaking in Brussels, Hammond also suggested that Europe’s refugee crisis, by raising awareness in eastern countries of the difficulties posed by immigration, could ease stiff opposition in the EU’s poorer, ex-communist members to British proposals to curb the rights of EU workers to move freely to other EU states.
Asked about the timing of the referendum that Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold by the end of 2017 on whether to stay in a reformed European Union, Hammond said the process launched after May’s British election to negotiate reforms would not get fully under way until after Poland’s Oct. 25 election.
The leading EU power in eastern Europe and a major exporter of labour to Britain, Poland shares the opposition of many other EU states to curbing the free movement of EU workers.
After the Polish election and an EU summit in mid-October, Hammond said he expected a “flurry of activity” in EU talks with Britain before another summit on Dec. 17-18.
“We expect there will then be a period ... when the really serious work, much of it at official level, will get under way,” he said. Declining to speculate on when Cameron might call the vote, he added: “In practice, we’d have had to concluded negotiations with a package agreed by probably May, June, if the referendum was going to be held in 2016.”
Noting 16 weeks allotted for campaigning, he said: “If it (negotiation) goes on through the summer, you can do the maths.
“We won’t be wanting to hold a referendum on Christmas Eve. If the negotiation stretches on through the summer into the autumn, it (the vote) will move into 2017 for sure.”
Hammond said British public perceptions that the European Union was in disarray over Syrian refugees had hit support for membership but he expected that if the EU managed to control the crisis in the coming months the negative trend in polls would reverse and restore a majority in favour of staying in the bloc.
The vocal position taken by some ex-communist countries against taking in asylum-seekers could help London persuade them of a need to curb migration by EU citizens, too.
“Some of the countries ... who have the most robust views on the external migration agenda have been the ones also with very strong views around no change to freedom of movement internally,” Hammond said on a day when EU ministers resorted to a rare vote to override eastern objections to granting asylum.
“The fact that Europe is facing the challenge that it is, of migration flows within Europe of newly arrived migrants, is perhaps focusing the attention of some people, in a way that hadn’t been focused before, about the challenges that migration at scale presents. And that’s been our argument all along.”
He stressed that Britain expected to win legally binding guarantees of changes in EU treaties to secure its demands on a range of issues and that it remained determined to secure rights to make foreign EU workers wait up to four years before having the same rights as Britons to some employment benefits. But he also noted that Britain intended to negotiate a package deal.
“It’s a very clear ask with very specific time scales attached to it,” he said of workers’ benefits. “But we will take that package of asks into a negotiating process.”
Editing by Dominic Evans