The past fortnight has seen the launch of the campaigns to either remain in the European Union or to leave.
‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ has pitched itself against two rival campaigns to leave the EU, ‘Vote Leave’ and ‘Leave.EU’. Both of the latter two hope to be designated as the official ‘out’ campaign, with the full benefits that would provide them from the Electoral Commission, but as yet neither has been given the nod.
Given the strength of the Prime Minister’s commitment to legislate for an ‘In/Out’ referendum on the EU, it is not surprising that people on either side of the argument have started to circle the wagons. My own view, though, is that it is slightly premature to be acting as if the full campaign has started.
There are politicians on both sides of the argument who will never be swayed one way or the other. Some still cling to the European ideal of ever closer union that led us closer to joining the Euro than we should ever have come. For many people, though, the EU has come to be seen as an unaccountable and bureaucratic millstone which they cannot wait to be rid of.
Of course, the whole point of having a referendum is to take this decision away from the politicians and return it to the people. Each MP, however strongly they advocate their view one way or the other, will still only have one vote – the country as a whole will make its judgement.
There are two parts to this debate, though. The end point is of course the referendum itself, but the country will not be asked to vote on our current relationship with the European Union, but on a new deal negotiated by the Prime Minister. I understand that some have dismissed the renegotiation as unlikely to achieve much, but I believe it is premature to pre-judge any deal before we have seen it.
Once we have seen it, people will then be able to make their judgement, to weigh up the pros and cons, and to determine whether or not the benefits of our membership of the free trade area is worth the political trade-offs that come from ceding some of Parliament’s sovereignty to EU bodies like the Commission and the Parliament.
My own view is that we should never have joined the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was. I fully share people’s anger about the extent to which some of our laws are made in Brussels, not Westminster. I campaigned on the ‘No’ side in the 1975 referendum and believe that the creeping advance of the EU into areas it was never designed to go into was wholly predictable and avoidable.
The coming referendum, however, will be based on the facts now not forty years ago. People will have to consider the reformed relationship that the Prime Minister presents and form their own decision about whether the economic benefits of the EU are worth the drawbacks.