Britain could hold a referendum on its EU membership before the summer holidays, a senior minister said Friday, but warned that fears triggered by the bloc’s record refugee crisis are fuelling support for a “Brexit”.
Europe Minister David Lidington said the crucial vote could be held in June or July if British and other EU leaders reach a deal on reforms at a summit next month.
“It would take about four months minimum between the end of negotiations and us announcing a date and the referendum taking place,” he told AFP.
“No decisions have been taken about the timing of the referendum, but a February deal would mean that a referendum before the summer holiday period is possible,” he added on the sidelines of a closed-door security policy conference west of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
His comments came as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday voiced confidence of securing a deal when EU leaders meet on February 18-19.
“I am quite sure that we’ll have a deal — not a compromise, a solution, a permanent solution — in February,” Juncker, the head of the executive branch of the European Union, told a Brussels press conference.
Lidington said he saw a “greater political energy” to seek an accord, but warned there were still sticking points in the talks.
These include Britain’s bid to prevent citizens from other EU states like Lithuania or Poland from claiming welfare benefits during their first four years in the country.
Critics say the plan is discriminatory and threatens freedom of movement in the EU.
Lidington said Prime Minister David Cameron “has always been very open” to looking for alternative solutions, but insisted that EU must address “a sense of unfairness at access to benefits by very large numbers of people who never paid into the system”.
Cameron also wants safeguards against more EU political integration, protection for countries like Britain choosing to stay outside the eurozone and greater economic competitiveness.
Lidington also pointed to the EU’s record migrant crisis as a key factor boosting support for a British exit, or “Brexit”.
“I think that there was a definite connection between the closer opinion poll findings about EU membership and what we saw with immigration,” he added.
A November opinion poll found that 52 percent of Britons want to leave the EU.
According to the United Nations, around one million migrants and refugees made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015, sparking the continent’s biggest migration crisis since World War II.