According to reports, Prime Minister David Cameron is preparing to hold the referendum in June in what has been interpreted as a sign that he has given up on a signficant renegotiation of the UK’s membership terms.
It comes as Chancellor George Osborne put himself at the heart of a drive to reform the EU and improve the UK’s membership terms with a trip to Paris to tackle French ministers opposed to giving the UK a looser relationship with Brussels.
The UK Government will not confirm or deny any date apart from the promise that it will happen before the end of 2017. However, the SNP have seized on reports of it taking place in June next year as a sign that the renegotiation is in trouble.
In addition, there are concerns that it will mean too much of an overlap with the Holyrood elections, which could marginalise the Scottish parties during the EU debate.
Mr Cameron has already been forced to rule out holding it on the same day as the Scottish elections.
SNP Europe spokesman Stephen Gethins said: “David Cameron appears to have given up on securing the treaty reforms he promised and is now, if these reports are correct, set to risk Scotland’s place in Europe with a rushed referendum.
“Both the Scottish Parliament elections and the EU referendum are vitally important events for Scotland – and neither campaign should be drowned out by the other.”
However, the UK Government’s focus appears to be more on wooing the French in an attempt to end their opposition to Mr Cameron’s proposals to change the EU and end closer integration for countries which do not want it.
Mr Osborne will hold meetings with French counterparts including finance minister Michel Sapin and foreign minister Laurent Fabius, where he is expected to recognise that the process will not be easy.
But he will argue that the impending vote in the UK is an “opportunity” to bring in changes to make Europe more “competitive and dynamic”.
The trip – the first of a series Mr Osborne intends to make to EU capitals over the next six months – is intended to build on the whirlwind tour David Cameron conducted in the aftermath of the Tory general election victory.
EU leaders have ordered officials to start technical discussions on what kind of reforms can be made to accommodate Britain – but the Prime Minister has signalled he will not seek to undermine the principle of free movement within the union.
In Paris, the Chancellor will set out four main pillars of the Government’s approach – sovereignty, fairness, competitiveness and immigration.
But he will insist he has a “positive vision” for the UK’s future within the EU.
He will also reiterate the strength of Anglo-French ties, launching a new joint taskforce to boost Europe’s digital economy.
“The referendum here in Britain is an opportunity to make the case for reform across the EU,” he is expected to say.”