It is the elephant of too many rooms. The complexity of the British membership of the European Union has caused controversy for decades. Should we stay or should we go? The debate in Commons on Monday will not decide the outcome of the heated argument, but it will suggest whether or not the public should be given the opportunity to choose. Both arguments are very simple, but have numerous downsides.
A significant number of those wishing to stay within the EU agree that Britain's membership does have countless disadvantages that prove problematic for the nation. Nevertheless, they believe that the negative constraints are outweighed by the positive economic assistance offered up by our involvement. It is fair to say that, at a time when the global economic outlook is so bleak, the decision to leave such a strong financial support system would have to be justified by only the most serious of reasons.
Those wishing to leave Europe believe that we see these reasons on a daily basis. They consider the control that the European Parliament has over Westminster to be excessive. They think that unemployment levels are, partially but significantly, down to workers coming over from Europe to work in our place. Some have even said that, at this rate, the British Parliament will soon be dwarfed by its continental counterpart. The fight to leave the EU is old and strong; it began shortly after we won the fight to join it.
Of course, back then, it wasn't called the European Union. Nope, it was called the European Economic Community; a simple economic collective of nations. We turned our nose up when it was first formed. Why would we, Great Britain, need the financial support of six nearby countries? We were taking a slight different approach by the beginning of the sixties, when we were economically stalling and EEC's founding nations were thriving. Then, we'd noticed our biggest downfall on the world stage; obstinacy. It took us twelve years' and four Prime Ministers' worth of meeting, haggling, and, at times, begging before we were included in Europe.
If this was a basic political story in a simple world, that would have been the end of it. But neither of those things exist, I'm afraid. It started to grow. In 1993, the European Economic Commission became the European Union. Not many people would have objected to a mere alteration in name. Yet, it symbolised more than that. It has expanded in size and influence ever since. When we joined, we were one of nine countries supporting each other economically. Now, we are one of twenty-seven states under the rule of Brussels.
This throws up a colossal dilemma. We are both assisted and hindered by our continued relationship with Europe. Little over a month ago, should a referendum have popped out of nowhere, I would have been clueless as to which outcome to route for. This was before I hit the road for Conference Season. In Birmingham, at a Liberal Democrat fringe event, Paddy Ashdown was asked directly about Europe. Days had passed at the Conference, and no one had dared mention the "E" word so far. It was treated with the same neglect at the following party conferences.
However, Ashdown hit the nail on the head when answering the question. "I've no idea why people are forced to decided one way or the other", he said. He suggested that we stay within the confines of the EU, but cut the ropes of influence that are currently tying down British political powers. Granted, merely staying in and reforming the terms of our membership is a considerably vague proposal, but, if it worked out, wouldn't it provide a the exact middle-ground solution that this argument so desperately seeks?
The referendum being proposed in Monday's parliamentary debate would not force the public to decide from two extreme options. It would be a three way battle between "yes", "no" or compromise. Ed Miliband told The Guardian that he doesn't believe now is the time to have a referendum on UK involvement in the EU. William Hague wrote in The Daily Telegraph that he believes in compromise on the topic of Europe, but that the Tories are taking the same approach to a referendum as Labour; that it's not the right time. They're taking identical approaches, yet they are working frantically to look so different.
The likelihood is that the outcome of Monday's debate will reject a referendum. Frontbenchers are arguing that the time isn't right. But when will it be? This economic crisis is not going to end overnight, and there will always be something else taking the spotlight. Meanwhile, that damned elephant will continue to linger in the corner of every room in Westminster, Whitehall, and the country.
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