Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: PM bets big on EU referendum gamble

For a man who in the past has said he believes it is in the national interest for the UK to be in the single market, David Cameron is taking a huge gamble with his pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership by 2017.

Perhaps it is a ploy to placate Tory Eurosceptics and also to win votes at the next general election. There is no doubt that many people - including those holding pro-EU views - feel that Brussels is too meddling, too expansionist in mentality and too profligate and that the UK needs greater sovereignty in areas like criminal justice, social and employment issues.

But the Prime Minister has so far only said that he wants to renegotiate part of the UK's relationship with the EU. He doesn't spell out what the areas up for negotiation are likely to be, so that an intelligent guess can be made as to the likelihood of success or failure. The only definite suggestion is that the public will be given the chance to vote on an in/out referendum at the end of the talks. What he has done is created an issue which will dominate politics in the UK for the next four years - providing the Tories win the next general election - but with no rational structure on which to begin the debate.

Already powerful voices have spoken out against Mr Cameron's plan. America believes the UK is stronger within the EU, many business interests agree and, of course, the senior EU members, France and Germany, have said that it is not possible to cherry-pick the bits of membership that appeal and ditch the rest. Yet, having taken the gamble, the Prime Minister will hope that opinion within the EU will soften and that positive negotiations can take place to ensure that the UK stays within the bloc.

This is an important debate for Northern Ireland which has benefited enormously from EU fiscal aid in the past. Very often the EU came up with the goods when the Westminster government was unwilling, or unable, to dig deeper into its own pockets.

Although the funding levels have changed, opting out of Europe would not appear to be in our best interests.

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