Comment: The EU debate needs more focus

We should give this choice the respect and consideration that it deserves


The referendum on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union presents us with a stark choice. But neither side is able to articulate what we would actually be voting for. Instead, they are turning on themselves. Both we, and the decision that we are being asked to make, deserve better.

Would a British exit embolden Eurosceptic parties across the continent? Possibly. Would it lead to other member states, such as France, likewise choosing to turn their backs on the EU? It might. Would it be a ‘poison’ that taints the national, European and global economy for years to come? That’s perhaps going a bit too far.

However, a re-energised United Kingdom free from the European Union and its treaties is also highly unlikely to reveal itself as the ‘sunlit land’ touted by Boris Johnson and other supporters of a swift Brexit. Sure, we might become the new Switzerland. We may even be able to claim a place as a global power in our own right. But we could quite easily find ourselves cast adrift, an ageing anachronism in the wild waters of the North Sea.

The truth is simple. We don’t know what the future will look like if we stay in the European Union. The concessions negotiated by the Prime Minister would doubtless result in some changes. And the pressures created by the increasing inflow of asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq means that EU is likely to come out of this particular crisis looking very different from when it went in.

And if we’re being honest, we don’t really have the faintest clue what life in a post-EU United Kingdom would look like either. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty means that the remaining 27 member states (to whom, remember, we would have just stuck up two fingers) would decide on our future relationship with the Union. And it’s far from clear that our international alliesand vital trade partners – would remain so close if we were to go it alone.

These are uncharted waters. And anyone who claims to know which course to steer is being a little overenthusiastic about their powers of navigation.

Given the circumstances, this state of affairs is perhaps inevitable. But neither the ‘Remainers’ nor the ‘Brexiters’ are helping matters.

The main argument of those wishing to remain part of the EU seems to be that while the current situation is far from perfect, a future outside the alliance could be positively catastrophic. Those who advocate our departure reject this as a ‘campaign of fear’, however, and claim with similar fervour that things would probably be OK.

In the absence of clear arguments or evidence either way, the two sides trade accusations and counter-accusations in one endless, vitriolic loop.

As a nation, we’re embarking on a decision that will change the way we live, the way we work and the way we interact with the world. There are compelling arguments to be made on both sides. But, so far at least, few people are making them.

We could talk about what we would like our role in the world to be. We could talk about trade links and the ability to work across borders. We would talk about peace, security and prosperity. And we could talk about whether our continued membership of the European Union promotes or hinders progress in each of these areas.

But that’s not happening.

In fact, the actual question of whether or not we should remain in the EU appears to have been trampled underfoot in the scrum for the next soundbite. What started out as a clear question on our nation’s future has turned into a sort of muddled Tory leadership election slash celebrity boxing match. There’s so much political posturing on both sides that the whole EU question hardly gets a look in.

If we’re to have a referendum on our continued membership of the European Union, then we should give this choice the respect and consideration that it deserves. We can’t know all the answers, but we could at least ask the right questions. What we have at the moment does not even come close.

Simon Perks is a writer, speaker and advisor focusing on politics, public finance and the delivery of public services.

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