As the road to referendum shortens, battle lines are drawn over the EU

Craig Harrison writes for us about the EU referendum and David Cameron’s appearance at the CBI

The annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry, held recently in London, provided an illustrative snapshot of the wider political debate on the UK’s membership of the EU.

David Cameron reiterated his desire to move away from the ‘ever closure union’ concept, downplaying any notion that the UK couldn’t survive outside of the institution. In what is expected to be a key message of his reform proposals – to be fully detailed soon – he added bluntly: “the status quo isn’t good enough for Britain”.

In this latter point, he may find company among some business leaders. As the CBI noted in its response to Mr Cameron’s speech, the majority of the representative body’s 190,000 members want to remain within a reformed EU – which, in its present form, is “far from perfect”, lacking sufficient focus on growth, jobs and trade.

This only reiterates what the CBI’s Northern Ireland branch outlined in a manifesto for change in September – calling on Stormont leaders to speak with one voice for NI to remain within a reformed European Union.

On the Hill, both shades of green have been at pains over the past few months to point out the negative impact a Brexit would have. To this end, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell argued that “An exit would prove disastrous for Ireland, North and South, in terms of trade [and] the economy”. In similarly emotive language, Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson also decried the economic consequences of a UK withdrawal.

When Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny took to the podium at the CBI conference, he too focused on economic implications, highlighting that “All- island economic cooperation is so much easier between two members of the European Union”.

While the position of these different groups shouldn’t be lumped together as one in the same, they can certainly be contrasted with that of the Vote, Leave – Take Control lobby.

The group, forged from a cross-party alliance of Eurosceptic MPs and Peers, infiltrated the CBI conference to heckle the Prime Minister’s speech, holding up placards reading “CBI = Voice of Brussels”.

The group believes that the UK has lost control of vital policies through its membership of the EU, with the supremacy of EU law one of the most significant drawbacks of an institution that also costs too much. The message of the Vote, Leave campaign – as stated by campaign director Dominic Cummings – is straightforward: “The public wants the end of the supremacy of EU law and to take back control of our economy, our borders, and our democracy. The only way to do this is to vote leave”.

So as we get closer to the 2017 deadline for a referendum on UK membership of the EU, the debate is heating up. Key actors are setting out their positions, and battle line are being drawn over what would be best for the UK.

Ultimately, this democratic debate should be welcomed, and the UK electorate should be grateful for the opportunity to absorb the different policy positions on offer, so as to be fully informed when deciding their own. What remains to be seen – in the game of politics, so often about who can shout the loudest – is whose stance will win out.

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