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PM's Speech Lays the Groundwork for the Real Debate

24/01/2013 10:21 GMT | Updated 24/03/2013 09:12 GMT

The build up to the big speech and the speech itself mark part two of one of the biggest political debates in modern political history. Part one of the debate had two parts, 'In/Out', and should we ever be given a chance to vote 'In/Out'? Part two of the debate, one would hope (Ed Miliband?), will focus exclusively on the first question, which needs to be answered... Having secured the right to decide, the time will soon come for the British people to decide.

When YouGov conducted their recent polls, though before the speech, at the time it was becoming increasingly clear that the prime minister would promise a referendum. The mindset of the person when polled regarding the 'In/Out' option was no longer clouded by the frustration that they may never be given a proper opportunity to vote, but by a more rational level headed assessment of the pros and cons of membership.

Consequently, it was no surprise that the polling released days before the big speech indicated a significant shift towards those wanting to remain in the EU, however this has little to do with the British public becoming less eurosceptic, but everything to do with them begginning to appreciate the nature of the political hurdles that we have to jump to secure a new relationship.

The view held by many British people that they would like a purely trading relationship with the EU ('Back to the Common Market', like what the British people thought they were voting for in 1975) is still widespread and this has not changed. What has changed is that there is now an increased engagement with the debates surrounding the best way to translate this desire into reality.

As the debates surrounding our membership deepen, the simplistic Ukip line that, because we want a trading relationship only, that is what we are going to get, will be found wanting. In politics there is a world of difference between wishing for something and putting in place a credible strategy to get as close as possible to that goal. It is precisely such a strategy that was present in the prime minister's speech today and which has been noticeably lacking in both Ukip's and Labour's approach to the issue.

A relationship whether simply trade-based or political is a two-way thing which requires an understanding of those on the other side. In a sense, though we want disentangle ourselves from the politics of the continent; our relationship with the EU is likely to become far more political before we secure the relationship the majority of the British people want. Let us not jeopardise our access to and ability to shape the Single Market.

What remains constant is an appreciation of the importance of the Single Market to the UK economy; this has been further underlined by significant interventions by key figures from the business community. However, in the public mind, the degree to which the Single Market can be de-politicalised seems to have changed.

In the first instance, there seems to be a growing appreciation that the Single Market is not a fixed entity, in many senses it is a product of the political process. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as people first thought to extrapolate it from the wider political components of the EU project.

Further to this, the view that you can only secure an equal trading relationship if each of the partners has the same capacity to shape the relationship (UK and EU) once the deal is initially struck, seems to be growing in strength. Rather than a static entity, that once agreed stays the same, the Single Market should be viewed as something living, evolving and dynamic, something that needs to be protected, sustained and enhanced. Whatever the outcome of any future renegotiation strategy, it is highly likely that some political involvement, however limited, will remain a necessity. We cannot run away from the decisions that shape the Single Market because we find the decision making process cumbersome. We need to retain a stake in the decision making process.

Secondly, the line, fuelled by Ukip, that you can simply leave the EU, leave the politics and hope that without a strategy you will be able to renegotiate an arrangement so that we are able to gain unfettered access to the Single Market is fanciful.

It is intriguing that, on the one hand, Ukip seem to accuses the EU ideologues of not taking a pragmatic view of economic decisions (the Euro project) while, on the other hand it expects the very same people to view our exit pragmatically. i.e. "we export more to them (UK); we would lose more jobs than them (UK) by being awkward so let's make it easy." I do not have much faith in many of the people governing the EU to be either rational or pragmatic. This is not to say that there is not a way that we can secure a common market based relationship with the remaining members of the EU.

So, in many ways the findings by YouGov pointing towards more people being in favour of continued membership of the EU do not have a great deal to do with the British people becoming more favourable towards the EU project. However, what they do demonstrate is a deeper understanding of the political traps that lie in wait for us if we are to achieve our goal of a less political, purely trade-based relationship with the continent.

What we are witnessing is a deepening of the debate, something that will only grow with time.