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The EU membership debate: why is it needed?

David Cameron promised that if the Conservatives were elected with a majority there would be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union before the end of 2017. Inevitably his motives were questioned. Was this to placate the Euro-sceptics on his backbenches or to stop a drift of voters to UKIP? Whatever his motives there are respectable democratic reasons for giving the British people some say on this issue now.

The previous referendum on British membership was in 1975 so anyone under the age of 58 has had no say on this matter. Moreover, the EU has grown and evolved since 1975 and the political map has changed since1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany. The wider world has also changed under the pressures of globalisation.

Membership arouses strong feelings in a significant number of people and the arguments for and against it will be examined in future blogs. Here I want to examine the circumstances and motives that influenced the founding fathers of the EU in the early post war years. Over 40 million people had been killed in two European wars and finding a way of resolve disputes politically rather than militarily was urgently required. This need was heightened by the ‘cold war’ between the USSR and the West. In 1950 the European Coal and Steel Community was founded to bring together Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. Seven years later this evolved into the European Economic Community (EEC) or ‘Common Market’ in the Treaty of Rome.

Britain, under the leadership of Edward Heath, joined the EEC in 1973, along with two other nations. The member nations did not charge customs duties on trade with each other which expanded their markets substantially. Business interests back membership now  because it gives them access to a market of 500 million people. Today the EU accounts for 20% of world GDP whereas the UK accounts for less than 3%. When it comes to trade talks and deals the EU has greater clout than any of its member states. That is why a CBI survey of its members found 78% favoured membership and only 10% wanted us to leave.

The Common Market was built on four pillars, the free movement of goods, services, money and people.  The movement of services is the least well developed to the UK’s detriment because that is one of our strengths. It is the free movement of people that is the most controversial and has fuelled support for UKIP from voters concerned about the level of immigration from other EU member states. Experiences of large class sizes, NHS waiting times and shortages of affordable houses heighten these concerns. At the same time more Britons work in other EU countries or retire to them than the numbers coming here. For example a million Britons now live in Spain. That doesn’t settle the matter but it puts it into perspective.

A serious national debate on Britain’s EU membership is needed, based on accurate information rather than propaganda. Prayer about the right values to shape how we vote is also essential.

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