Update 31st October: Amid various political shenanigans within the coalition government, the EU Referendum Bill has been "killed off" - Telegraph 28th October.
In his recent speech to the Conservative Party conference, David Cameron referred to renegotiating British terms of membership of the European Union. He said - "... we’re going to go in as a country, get our powers back, fight for our national interest ... and yes – we’ll put it to a referendum … in or out – it will be your choice ..."
The Conservative Party is supporting a Private Members Bill to enable a referendum to take place at a date to be appointed but no later than the end of 2017. It would ask - "Do you think that the UK should be a member of the EU." The Private Member who introduced the Bill is Robert Neill MP. He said
that it was not a bill about whether we should, in the longer term,
stay in or leave the EU. It was an opportunity for people to have a say.
At least on the part of the Conservative Party, there seems to be a political commitment to renegotiation of some aspects of the UK's membership. Presumably, the electorate would be presented with information about what the renegotiation had actually achieved.
In the event of a NO answer,
the Bill does NOT create any legal obligation on government to actually lead the UK out of the EU though, politically, the referendum might well raise an expectation that the government would do so.
On 17th October, the Bill had its second reading. (The debate may be read at Hansard 17th October pages 575 to 631). See also European Union (Referendum) Bill 2014-15 and Parliament's website
A similar previous Bill failed to be enacted for reasons set out in an article in The Telegraph 24th January 2014. Whether the present Bill will become law remains to be seen. It will have to complete its progress through the House of Commons and then the House of Lords. However, there is a possibility that the Parliament Acts 1911-1949 will be invoked to dispense with the Lords.
Interestingly, the present Bill was unopposed at second reading even though the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties appear to remain against holding a referendum unless there are further transfers of power to the EU - Proposed referendum on UK membership of the EU.
It is here that matters can become complicated because the European Union Act 2011 requires a referendum to be held in certain circumstances BUT a key point about the 2011 Act is that it does not impose any obligation to hold a referendum on the very basic question of membership. Referenda under the 2011 Act relate to, for example, replacement of or amendments to the EU Treaties. The Act prevents ratification of certain treaty changes without a referendum result in favour. The 2011 Act is discussed further at Law and Lawyers 7th December 2011.
The exact targets for renegotiation are not entirely clear but seem to include matters such as immigration and deportation. Here, the government will come up against the fact that Freedom of Movement of Workers is a foundation stone policy of the EU - see Article 45 TFEU and European Commission - The EU Single Market. Freedom of movement of workers can be subject to limitations if they can be justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health - see Article 45(3). Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the EU would agree to exempting the UK from foundation stone policies though it may be possible to secure some agreement on matters such as making it easier for governments to deport EU citizens who have, for example, been convicted of very serious criminal offences. At present, the law leans against deportation of EU nationals though it is possible - see here.
Clearly, interesting times lie ahead ..........................