David Cameron and German chancellor Angela Merkel at a recent EU summit. [Reuters]
A worrying influence is increasingly entering British political discourse: europhobia, the irrational hatred of the EU. This goes beyond mere scepticism, as sceptics typically require evidence to support any assertion, whereas so-called "eurosceptics" appear to be in complete denial of facts about the EU and the benefits it brings us.
Growing europhobia has led to growing support for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, as clearly demonstrated by the recent suggestion of a Conservative electoral pact with UKIP on condition of holding a referendum. This is extremely worrying due to the potential damage that leaving the EU could cause Britain.
Support for an EU Referendum has up to now largely come from UKIP and the europhobic media, but it has increasingly been embraced by sections of the Conservative Party, including Boris Johnson. More worryingly, increasing numbers of people in the Labour Party are warming to the idea of a referendum as a cynical ploy to split the Tories. This is extremely risky as it could very easily backfire upon them if a referendum was then held and lost.
Furthermore, an EU referendum is utterly unnecessary politically, given the three largest parties are all officially supportive of membership. Any campaign would therefore be a major distraction from far more important issues, such as Britain's economic problems and tackling climate change. It also hands control of the political agenda to extreme right-wingers.
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A fundamental issue with holding any EU referendum is that we have already had one. In 1975 the British public voted overwhelmingly in favour of membership. Although opponents will point out that the EU has changed greatly since then, so have other international organisations. However there do not presently appear to be any calls for referendums on our membership of NATO and the UN.
Regardless of the previous EU Referendum, the fact that some opinion polls have shown a small majority of British people backing the UK's departure from the EU has led some people to argue that a referendum would therefore be democratic. However democracy is also reliant on decisions being made after a balanced evaluation of the facts.
It is extremely hard to imagine that the sort of objective media coverage necessary to ensure a fair and balanced campaign would be provided, due to the rabid europhobia of large swathes of the media. Britain's future prosperity is far too important an issue to let the editor of the Daily Mail decide. Also, on certain issues, it is important to ignore public opinion at the time for the greater good. If we did not, Britain would still be carrying out executions, and homosexuality and abortion would still be illegal.
This widespread europhobia in Britain tends to be a result of this media misinformation, combined with a lack of awareness of the EU's achievements. The EU has overseen the longest period of peace in Western European history. The level of prosperity now enjoyed by most Europeans is unprecedented. EU citizens now live in democracies without fear of torture or persecution for their beliefs, while freedom of movement and labour has brought untold benefits to millions of people.
The list of achievements is endless. If more people were aware of these achievements, it is unlikely there would be so much support for leaving the EU.
This ignorance is not helped by the fact that too few people are prepared to stand up for the EU and its achievements. This has led to the vast majority of debate on "Europe" being dominated by extremists, which prevents rational discussion of the EU and its merits. For example the EU can easily be labelled as undemocratic in many aspects, due to the unelected nature of the European Commission and other key decision making bodies. However the solution to any democracy deficit in the EU is not to leave it, but to work to reform it for the better.
If Britain were fully engaged with the EU, we would be a major player alongside France and Germany. Instead Britain languishes on the sidelines, which has not been helped by David Cameron's recent opposition to any increase in the EU Budget. Leaving the EU would give Britain even less influence than it already has in its decision making.
The economic consequences of leaving the EU do not bear thinking about. As Britain's largest trading partner, damaging our relationship with the EU would be catastrophic. An estimated 3-3.5 million British jobs are linked to our EU membership, a large proportion of which would in all likelihood be lost if we left. British farmers are also heavily dependent on EU subsidies that our government would be unlikely to provide itself. British consumers would face large price rises on many everyday goods, as import tariffs vastly increase costs on goods from the EU.
To counter the clear economic disadvantages to leaving the EU, UKIP and other europhobes make out that Britain would still be able to remain part of a looser purely economic union if it left the political union part of the EU. To think that France and Germany would tolerate Britain leaving, and thus destabilising the EU, is frankly preposterous. It is also highly unlikely that Britain would ever be allowed back into the EU if it left.
In an increasingly multi-polar world, it is only through the EU that Britain can continue to maintain its previous levels of power and influence. Talk of exiting the EU will only make our international isolation worse, and risks further destabilising the eurozone. The EU is far stronger with Britain in it, and Britain is far stronger as a part of the EU. Long may this remain the case.
Tim Rose is a writer for Concrete, the University of East Anglia newspaper, specialising in politics and home affairs
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