The general election is won, the Queen’s Speech held and so the newly formed conservative government is taking the first steps to fulfil its election promises. Holding a referendum on the UK’s membership to the European Union is only one of those but one that clearly had to be at the forefront of the government’s policies as the PM promised a referendum before the end of 2017. The question is, how is such a referendum actually being organised? It is not as simple as setting a date and handing out ballots.
Parliamentary sovereignty is a fundamental doctrine of the UK’s legal system. It does mean that parliament is the absolute and autonomous creator of law. No institution or person can infringe amend or affect this sovereignty, not even parliament itself. Consequently, any form of legislation being passed without parliament involved is invalid.
A referendum of the kind suggested here needs some form of legitimisation in order for its result to have an actual impact. Otherwise, the referendum would be nothing more but a more or less entertaining box-ticking exercise without any qualitative meaning.
This is where parliament comes in. Ones the government suggested a bill it will go through both houses of parliament to be passed, following a certain procedure every time. In order for the government to be able to hold the referendum promised parliament will have to pass a bill allowing, outlining and structuring the processes around such a referendum.
Details of such a bill include the electorate, meaning: Who will be able to vote? This does relate to the group of persons as well as their age. It is proposed that every British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens at the age of 18 or older and living in the UK are going to get a vote, excluding EU only citizens. This will mean that nationals of non EU nations such as Australia, South Africa or Kenya, to only mention a few. It has very recently been suggested to lower the age limit to include 16 year olds. We can expect interesting debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords on this front.
The European Union Referendum Bill 2015 also outlines the format of the question as it is going to be put to the electorate:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”
This is important as the format of the question has the potential to impact the campaign in the run up to the referendum as well as the ballot itself. This question is very clear, without any confusing negations. It is also looking for a positive YES to keep the status quo or a NO to change the UK’s situation. This phrasing of the question should allow for all electorates to understand the question and respond clearly in the way they intend the referendum to turn out.
The European Union Referendum Bill 2015 also outlines, in detail, how the costs are going to be covered and who is going to be responsible for the finances in relation to this referendum.
All in all, the process is well under way and the Prime Minister is taking the first essential steps to keep his promises. While preparing the UK for this referendum, David Cameron also started negotiations with the EU about the UK’s membership and contractual duties. For Cameron, it is essential to have a clear view on the UK’s position in the EU before setting a date for the referendum. He and his government need to ensure that the electorate understands clearly what the UK’s position is and what the consequences of either outcome of the referendum will be. Referenda are always in danger of resulting in a decision that does not actually represent the opinion of the electorate as a result of the people not being correctly informed with regards to all aspects of the decision at hand. The electorate needs to know what the UK’s position will be outside the EU and what position it is in now as part of the EU in order to decide which option is more beneficial to them.
It will be for the YES and NO campaigns to play an important part in ensuring transparency and informing the public view.