T2. Mr Ross asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, following speculation over the weekend that the Prime Minister is likely to look at a referendum on the European in-out question in early June, whether they share the concern that an early European referendum, rather than one in September, could cause difficulties with the Assembly election, given the possible danger of confusing the two messages. (AQT 3402/11-16)
I absolutely share that concern. It is obvious that we are not the only people concerned about that. I listened — I think that it was last weekend — to the First Minister of Scotland expressing her disagreement with such a referendum being held in such close proximity to their elections. It is an important matter, but even more important is what will be put to people in that referendum. Over the next, probably, two days, further important meetings will take place between David Cameron and senior representatives of the European Union, the outcome of which will probably decide what will be put to a referendum. It is no secret to anybody that I have huge concerns that the strategy that has been adopted by David Cameron is sleepwalking all of us into an exit from Europe.
The debate around our membership of the European Union is important, and, in order to make sure that we have a proper debate, it is important that we have enough space between the Assembly election and the European referendum. What discussions has OFMDFM had with other devolved regions across the United Kingdom or, indeed, our national Government on the timing of the referendum and whether there is scope for negotiation on a September date rather than a June date?
The point made by the Member is important. Up until now, although there have been conversations, because of the inability to work out exactly when the referendum will be, it has been difficult to zero in on how we take things forward. On account of it being flagged up that there could be a referendum in June, it is important that the First Minister and I engage with David Cameron and others, including the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, about the issue.
It is all on public record. The First Minister of Scotland has put it on public record, and it will come as no surprise to anybody that we share concerns about the close proximity of a referendum to the Assembly elections. We have not even dealt with the arguments on the merits of staying in or leaving. One thing we all need to bear in mind is how it could economically affect us in the North, particularly when you have, for example, the Confederation of British Industry in the North saying that over 90% of its members are against an exit.