If David Cameron gets his way there will be a referendum on Britain's EU membership in 2017. That's a long way off, but if opinion polls are anything to go by, the result is likely to be very close. A lot could change in the time until the referendum - we have a brand new Commission with different priorities, and Cameron will try to renegotiate Britain's membership terms - but the broad appearance of the EU is likely to be the same then as now.
This means that, as with Scotland leaving the Union, there's a distinct possibility of Britain leaving the EU while a substantial minority want to stay in. The EU debate has so far produced a good number of thoughtfulblueprints for what the post-EU UK should look like. These are, however, mainly written by those who want to leave. As is quite reasonable, those who want to stay in the EU instead write on the benefits of staying and the risks of leaving.
However, if the country does vote to leave in 2017 it is important that both sides contribute to the post-exit settlement. Groups who want to stay in the EU have a number of legitimate concerns, and in a mature democracy these should be taken into account. For example West Wales and Cornwall benefit from the EU's 'structural funds', which pay for business development, jobs training, community projects and other initiatives to help less developed regions. The last few years such funding has come to around £4.5 billion annually. Likewise Britain's farmers are subsidised under the EU common agricultural policy - losing their subsidies would mean they were competing with European farmers at a disadvantage.
In a new book published by Civitas think tank, I consulted these vulnerable groups over their EU exit worries. It's important to establish the specifics - what they fear about leaving - so exit can be as smooth as possible and avoid these fears. I looked at groups like fishermen, who are currently part of an EU-wide system to make sure the seas are not overfished. If Britain left the EU they would still need some kind of cooperation with nearby countries. Big manufacturers were equally keen to see a single system across all their factories, continental and British, so they could build products to the same standards for both markets.
This all points to the need for a debate on what exactly we would like the country to look like after independence. We could continue to support famers by 'mirror funding' the amounts the EU used to pay, but this is seen as unfair and protectionist by many. We would need to build a consensus on immigration and integration; a lot of businesses depend on highly skilled migrants and universities welcome overseas students, we are a friendly country, but this would be balanced by some people's concerns about strains on infrastructure.
The economy is another area for discussion. British exporters will want continued free trade with Europe, which could be achieved with a trade agreement or a Norwegian-style membership of the 'European Economic Area'. This would be tempered by concerns over 'red tape' regulations, which come from Brussels and Westminster both. Some EU rules are seen as bad by just about everyone but others, such as employment laws for paid holidays, may well be kept.
As British exit becomes more likely, all interest groups should consider the merits and drawbacks of leaving the EU and how they should be addressed. Questions of free trade, Britain's stance on the world stage and domestic policy can all be overcome. It's best that they're overcome together.Suggest a correction