17/01/2013 13:19 GMT | Updated 19/03/2013 05:12 GMT

The Important Issue of the EU Referendum Is Being Debated Poorly

For all the seriousness that a referendum on the EU carries, the mind numbingly dull way in which the issue is being debated would suggest otherwise. Particularly guilty are those attacking the Conservatives for placing party unity above the country's interests.

David Cameron leads a party whose electoral support stems from those demanding some kind of change in relationship; he can be forgiven for at least devoting some attention to this issue rather than fobbing his voters off. Perhaps all this loud posturing is a way to distract voters from the fact that all three parties at various points over the last decade have suggested a referendum on various aspects of EU membership. Regardless of whether you support membership or not, a referendum would be right in principle if the relationship changes, as it is likely to, in coming years. This has been reflected by the words of politicians in the past, but not by their actions.

The nature of the debate is not being helped by the vacuity of the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander. For every time the issue of the EU is raised, he merely thinks and responds in cliche, repeating robotically the mantra of "jobs and growth", as if to lull the public into believing what he says is convincing. Unfortunately for him, it isn't. Lines such as "It's not so much a Number 10 strategy as a Number 10 shambles", sound more like they should be coming from a politicians child rather than being uttered by someone who holds an immensely important office. Miliband is doing himself no favours by adopting this tone, which ensures that discourse over the issue fails to reflect its importance.

What is needed is complete honesty and an elaboration of what staying in or leaving the EU would entail; something which is unlikely given the aversion of politicians to telling the truth. "Losing influence at the decision making table", seems to be the most serious criticism thrown at those demanding a UK exit, along with Nick Clegg's objection that mere talk of a referendum would have "a chilling effect on jobs." Do either of these statements stand up to serious scrutiny? Do we really have more of a say in policy making than any other EU country? Surely it is not in the UK's interests when policies it has opposed are forced upon it. And it is true that many business leaders have noted their fears of an EU departure. But is it not possible that the UK could thrive with its new ability to make free trade agreements with other countries unimpeded by Europe, something it currently cannot do? And, as long as the Euro crisis continues, the appeal of doing business in Europe will dwindle. These are the points which those who support membership need to deal with, so they can at least support their claims with some intellectual rigor.

Similarly, the onus is on those who want secession to seriously look into what this decision would involve, with any problems laid bare. Whilst there would be new opportunities, any decision to leave would have huge ramifications abroad, whether it be our standing in Washington or any European capital. A decrease in trade with Europe could almost certainly be expected, alongside vindictiveness from European politicians towards the UK. Independence from the EU is hardly going to signal the resurgence of Britain as a world power. These problems can not be ignored, and should be accepted by eurosceptics in order to grant their campaign some intellectual honesty.

What doesn't help is the way in which simplistic soundbites are bandied about over a serious issue. This undoubtedly does little to warm the public towards politicians, and does even less to educate people of the ins and outs of leaving. It was perhaps naive to assume that The Thick Of It would have awoken politicians to the contempt in which much of the public holds them, and that it is obvious when they are trying to obfuscate or evade an issue. Unfortunately, the lesser debate over whether a referendum will even happen has been full of limpid political criticisms, signalling an extremely insincere debate in the future should a referendum be decided upon.