Ins and Outs of EU red cards, red lines and emergency brakes

Voting in the European Union Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Will the UK vote to stay in or leave the European Union

The likelihood of an EU Referendum on Thursday 23 June 2016 seems to fluctuate by the day, but at the time of writing it looks more probable than ever.

So in as little as four months' time, we could find ourselves making the most important political decision of our lives: to leave or to remain in the European Union.

No wonder we are already seeing a distinct sharpening in the debate between the Leavers and the Remainers.

The early exchanges remind me of that old 'Monty Python' scene in which the cry goes out: "What have the Romans done for us?" Except that this time it's the EU.

Back comes the answer from the CBI: the UK economy is 5% bigger than it would be were we not in the European Single Market. That equates to over three million jobs. Over £130bn worth of business is directly linked to trade with the EU according the pro EU business campaign Business Stronger in Britain.

Its head, Lord (Stuart) Rose, the former boss of Marks and Spencer asks:"Why would we want to exchange the imperfect reality of what we have at the moment for the risks of tomorrow without any certainty about what that risk might be?"

Even though Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley agrees we should remain in the EU, she does not think the argument should be won or lost through scaremongering.

She tells me:"The argument has become about businesses talking to each other. We need to talk to the British people about things they are able to understand and have some hope for in or out, rather than just fear."

One thing we would not need to fear if we came out is those over-hyped worries about job losses, according to the former trade minister Digby Lord Jones of Birmingham, fast emerging as a prominent Leaver.

"Not one single job is at risk" he says.

Germany sells so many cars to us that they would still want to trade with us tariff-free even if we do leave. Other EU countries would follow their lead and negotiate tariff-free agreements with us which would enable our exporters would enjoy that trading environment as well.

A leading Midlands director of several FTSE 100 companies told me recently that the threat of European tariffs was no longer seen as a significant concern in most boardrooms.

What's more, ours is the only part of Britain currently enjoying a trade surplus with China. Even during this period of slowdown in China, it remains a bigger market for us here in the Midlands than any of our EU partners.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the proportion of the UK's goods and services exported within the EU was 55% of our total in 1999. By 2014 the EU's share of our export business had fallen to 45%.

These of course are just fragments of the debate; little more than snapshots. But they do foreshadow the sorts of arguments we can expect to hear as the debate unfolds.

Business and the people?

The other part of that challenge from Jess Phillips is to make sure as many people as possible get involved in the EU debate and that it isn't just a glorified debating society for rival business leaders.

In the end it will not be their lordships who decide this. It will be the electorate.

And that's come about not just because of the pressure exerted on the government by UKIP.

It was the rebel Conservative backbenchers including the Worcester MP Robin Walker who made sure the Parliamentary pressure for a referendum irresistible.

Even though his late father, Peter Walker, was one of Margaret Thatcher's longest-serving, and most Euro-enthusiastic, Cabinet ministers, he thinks this In or Out decision is long overdue. He believes most people's opinions lie in the middle, between the extremes set out by Lords Jones and Rose.

Mr Walker says Britain must have a better deal if we are to remain in the EU. So he's keeping his options on his own voting intentions open until the final outcome of the renegotiations are confirmed, probably after the next European Council in a fortnight's time.

This is also the position of most of his Conservative colleagues here in our region.

Of those Midlands Conservative MPs to answer our questions on this, only the Stourbridge MP Margot James tells us she will support Britain remaining in the EU whatever terms the Prime Minister comes back with. On the other side of the argument is the group of confirmed Eurosceptic Tories whom David Cameron tells us want to leave the EU whatever the deal he agrees: Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, Cotswold; Bill Cash MP, Stone; Michael Fabricant MP, Lichfield and Owen Paterson MP, North Shropshire.

Meantime all our Labour MPs who responded to us are confirmed Remainers, with one exception. The Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston Gisela Stuart has already told us she considers it 'inevitable' that Britain and the EU will part company. In theory she is keeping her options open. In practice it is hard to imagine she will be persuaded by the case to remain in.

For this week's Sunday Politics programme, our BBC Shropshire Political Reporter Joanne Gallacher has been taking soundings on both sides of the issue in her county.

And we will have an all-European line-up with me in the studio, comprising all the three parties representing our part of the country in Brussels and Strasbourg: for the Conservatives, Dan Dalton MEP. For Labour, Neena Gill MEP and for UKIP, Bill Etheridge MEP.

And I hope you will join us too in our own semi-circular debating chamber at 11.00 GMT slot on BBC One Midlands this Sunday 7 February 2016.

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