All expectations are now that the EU referendum vote will be in summer this year, most probably in June - meaning that both campaigns to remain and leave only have six months to make their case to the British public. No public decision has demanded a more informed debate.
Ensuring an informed debate cannot be taken for granted. Europe is not a priority for many people. It would be unfair to assume that everyone will have the time or inclination to fully evaluate the merits of either position. I therefore strongly welcome British Futures' proposal this week for a 'third' non-partisan campaign to promote interest in the referendum and boost turn-out specifically targeting groups considered less likely to take part. A low turnout will undermine the legitimacy of the result either way.
With poor understanding of how the EU works or how it impacts on our daily life endemic, there is fertile ground for misinformation, distortion and mistruth. Decisions made by elected MEPs or national ministers are turned into 'diktats from Brussels' in the UK mainstream media or the annual reports of the Court of Auditors on the EU accounts are ignored in favour of the ongoing lie that the EU's accounts have not been signed off.
Worse awaits on social media. Every post on the benefits of the EU is greeted by accusations of 'scaremongering'. Misinformation circulates and rumours fly. Some are led to believe that EU exit is a means of escaping the pressures of globalisation, of turning the clock backwards, when no one has set out exactly what Out looks like. Others invoke austerity policies across the EU as a reason to jump ship, without addressing the UK government's own sovereign agenda of cutting services, pay and benefits. Every grievance is given its European scapegoat, most recently shown with attempts to blame the floods on the EU, rather than budget cuts and climate change... "Too complicated: blame the EU". False claims need to be challenged and exposed.
Nowhere is the need for a properly informed debate more pressing than in the North East of England where so much is at stake.
In April last year, research from the Centre for European Reform showed why British exit from the EU risks hitting my home region harder than most, making already shocking levels of regional inequality worse. Poorer regions of the UK are more dependent on exports to the EU than richer ones. Exports to the EU account for 15% of private sector output in the North East of England supporting around 170,000 jobs in the region, compared to 9% in the South West of England and Scotland, two of the UK's richer regions. Moreover, the North East is the largest net beneficiary of EU membership of the English regions - vital investment into our infrastructure, business development and skills. EU rules have cleaned our air, beaches and waterways, delivered equal pay for men and women and rights to paid holiday for all workers, and ensured redress for consumers. We have a progressive vision, set out by Jeremy Corbyn, for how the EU should reform to continue to deliver for regions like my own in the future.
With so many unknowns and false certainties involved with how this vote could impact our region, country and the EU as a whole, the danger is that the decision will be made on the basis of flimsy facts and pipe-dreams. To win the driving seat of EU reform, we must educate, agitate and organise the campaign to stay in.