Mike Gapes put forward amendments to the European Union Referendum Bill which would bring the referendum date forward when the Bill was debated in Commuttee stage on Tuesday 16 June. Here is his speech.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I rise to speak in support of amendments 49 and 50, which have been tabled in my name, and to give my support to amendment 54, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden).
The Bill proposes that the referendum be held by 31 December 2017. That is in line with what the Prime Minister proposed in his Bloomberg speech in January 2013. I often wondered why 31 December 2017 had been chosen. I assumed that it was an arbitrary date midway through a Parliament elected in May 2015. In the last Parliament, when the former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was questioned by the Foreign Affairs Committee, it seemed to come as a surprise to him when we pointed out that under the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers the United Kingdom’s presidency would begin in July 2017. I do not know whether that had been taken into consideration when the Government produced their original proposal, but it will clearly be a major complicating factor.
We are debating the period of purdah. Just imagine what would happen if there were a meeting of the Council of Ministers in September 2017 and the referendum were to be held within 28 days of that meeting, in the October. What would Ministers be able to do or say during that period? Those Council of Ministers meetings have to be convened and chaired by the appropriate representative of the rotating six-month presidency, and there would have to be a British Minister present to represent the interests of the UK Government. What could those Ministers and their officials say and do during that period? There would be enormous complications if the Bill were to lead to a referendum being held in the last few months of 2017.
Under the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, there is a defined period within which the next German election will be held. It has to be held on 27 August 2017 at the earliest, and at the latest on 22 October 2017. One can imagine Chancellor Merkel, Mr Sigmar Gabriel, Mr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Mr Wolfgang Schäuble and all the other senior figures on both sides of the German coalition being somewhat exercised and diverted from considering matters to do with the possible negotiated terms, or the nature of the negotiation, if we had not yet set the date for our referendum.
It seems, therefore, that any referendum held in the second half of 2017 would have major problems. Amendment 49 recognises that, and provides that the referendum in this country should be held before 1 July 2017—before the United Kingdom takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers and before the German election campaign. We might bring it forward to the first half of 2017, but I suspect that when the Prime Minister came up with his proposal in his Bloomberg speech he had not considered the election cycle in France. The first round of the presidential election has to be held in April 2017 and the second round in May. We could face trouble with the renegotiations in France if we were to have the referendum later in 2017.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I am listening closely to the hon. Gentleman, but is not the logic of his argument that, with 27 other countries in the European Union, there would never be a good time to have a referendum on our membership of the European Union?
Mike Gapes: My position on this matter is well known. I am not in favour of referendums, and neither was Margaret Thatcher. She quoted Clement Attlee, who said they were the devices of demagogues and dictators. However, that is a diversion from these amendments, so I will not go down that route.
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Mike Gapes: No. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, if I lose an election or a referendum, I recognise the result. The fact is we lost the election. There will be a referendum and the best thing that we who believe in the European Union can do is to get into the fight and build a strong yes campaign. It is a pity that Scottish nationalists do not accept the result of the referendum they lost last year.
The problem we face is fundamental: the two major countries within the European Union—Germany and France—may be preoccupied with internal political campaigns and processes at precisely the time when we might be concluding the most difficult part of the renegotiation strategy. The solution might be to bring forward the referendum, as amendment 50 suggests, to before the end of 2016. That would still give time for the renegotiation to proceed, and for the Government to have a piece of paper to wave, saying it is a protocol that can be implemented later in future treaty reform, but not at that time. It could still provide the fig leaf that the Prime Minister will need if he is to claim that he has fundamentally renegotiated the terms of our membership. It will also give enough time for a considered campaign to ensure that there is a clear majority for our country staying within the European Union.
The other advantage of bringing forward the referendum is that it cuts the period of uncertainty for the Koreans, the Americans, the Chinese and the other countries wishing to invest in the United Kingdom. They would have less uncertainty than they would have if we left the referendum to the end of 2017. One of the strongest arguments against a referendum is the economic and political uncertainty it engenders. If foreign investors, or people planning long-term investment projects, think there is no guarantee that the United Kingdom will remain in the European Union, they will not give priority to investing in our country. They will hold back, or choose to go to a country such as Ireland, the Netherlands or France, where there is certainty over their continuing membership of the European Union.
Reference was made earlier to the position of Norway and Switzerland. One of the great failings of those who believe that we should be outside the European Union is that they have failed to define what we are going out to.
Mike Gapes: The free trade that Switzerland and Norway have with the European Union is dependent on their complying with rules and regulations that are determined within and by the European Union member states, over which Switzerland and Norway have absolutely no say.
Mike Gapes: There we have it. We have the authentic voice of those who want us to leave the European Union. They do not want to comply with the rules and regulations. Presumably, they do not want us to have unfettered access to the single market of 500 million people. The Norwegians think better than that—
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The Temporary Chair (Sir Roger Gale): Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying rather far from the dates that are the subject of the amendment. It is fascinating material, but we do not really need another Second Reading debate.
There is an issue here to do with purdah and how the purdah requirements would apply. There will be great difficulty in holding a referendum at the end of 2017, when we are chairing the Council of Ministers meetings, because of that issue alone. For that reason, I hope that, if we are to have a referendum in 2016, we plan for it now—and that may already be, privately, the Prime Minister’s intention—rather than getting into great difficulties with the way in which it can be conducted, and damaging the United Kingdom’s role and relationship with the other 27 member states of the European Union. Once the referendum is over, assuming that it is won, we must work constructively with our partners to restore the trust and relationships for the future. It is better that we confront the issues early, rather than slipping into some kind of disastrous outcome.