Leaders: Timing of EU vote is crucial to deciding future

The UK would need to avoid a clash with elections in France and Germany in the spring of 2017. Picture: PA
The UK would need to avoid a clash with elections in France and Germany in the spring of 2017. Picture: PA
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VOTERS must be allowed to assess the outcome of vital negotiations on issues such as migration and any further political opt-outs

An upbeat assessment from Prime Minister David Cameron on prospects for a deal with European leaders next month, clearing the way for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership this year, will be broadly welcomed by campaigners on both sides.

For those in favour of remaining, it lessens the risk of rogue external events such as an intensification of the migrant crisis in Europe clouding the case for “no change”. And among voters an early referendum offers relief from the prospect of endless midnight “Euro summits” with attendant doubts as to what exactly the PM has achieved.

There are practical as well as political reasons why a delayed referendum vote would pose problems. The UK would need to avoid a clash with elections in France and Germany in the spring of 2017. Mr Cameron would also want to avoid the vote turning into a mid-term referendum on the government, where the outcome could be swayed by non-relevant factors.

However, holding the referendum this year is not hurdle-free. Mr Cameron has already ruled out a vote in the first week of May to avoid a clash with the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Stormont Parliament elections. Assuming an acceptable agreement is reached on his reform demands at the February summit, a vote could be held in June. However, Westminster will need to pass legislation authorising the date and approving other election-related details. In addition, to ensure the campaign is informed and both sides have time to advance their arguments and prepare their organisations, Mr Cameron has said that at least three months should elapse before the vote.

Time will certainly be needed to scrutinise the terms of the UK’s renegotiated membership on which the Prime Minister has placed so much hope. The most contentious issue is the demand for a restriction on access to in-work and out-of-work benefits to EU migrants. An alternative may be to extend the restrictions to UK citizens, but that may prove a hard sell at home. Other issues include economic governance, measures on competitiveness and an opt-out from further political integration. All deserve close scrutiny.

Whatever date is chosen, voters will need to carefully assess the outcome of these negotiations. Do they offer the real reforms that Mr Cameron has been seeking? Or is it yet more Euro-fudge? Then there are the consequences to UK trade. Downsides such as retaliatory tariffs against UK imports run counter to WTO rules.

There are not just economic, but also geo-political considerations. Would the UK lose influence in the wider world? Considerations of sovereignty will also feature highly.

It is commonly assumed Scots are more in favour of staying in the EU. But many SNP supporters will be restive about ceding sovereignty to a supra-national political union with clear political ambitions.

These are issues that require full airing, and debate will require time. Both sides, however, will be anxious to avoid the febrile division and extremes of language evident in the independence referendum. On that at least there is agreement.

Railway travel pushed into siding

For travellers to switch from car to rail it matters that trains are convenient, speedy and cost competitive. But according to a survey today, even railway enthusiast Michael Portillo would struggle to make a series of Great British Rail Journeys on today’s timetable.

The study reveals that many rail journeys offer the worst “value for money” compared to driving. A return journey from London to Edinburgh carries an additional cost of £150. A London to Newcastle return has the biggest additional cost for train travel, at £159.

The research also revealed that some journeys are slower as well as more expensive. They include Glasgow to Leeds (54 minutes) and Glasgow to York (44 minutes). Glasgow to Aberdeen by rail costs passengers an extra £33 to save only 12 minutes.

With slower times and extra costs like this, it’s hardly worth thumbing through a modern-day Bradshaw’s Guide.

It’s true that rail passenger numbers have risen notably in recent years. But the car, with all its attendant environmental costs, continues an inexorable rise.

The research took into account the price of an off-peak return train ticket for popular journeys from London and Glasgow Central. With the fall in petrol prices, the comparison has been getting ever tougher for the railway traveller. Rail fares, meanwhile, were increased by an average of 1.1 per cent at the start of the year.

The picture is not without hope. The rail network works continuously to bear down on journey times. And meanwhile, the train can offer real advantages in terms of comfort, relaxation, refreshments and relative safety. For the business traveller, there is also the opportunity to work in quiet compartments. The cause of rail is by no means lost.