The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has announced that the referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU, or remain on the revised terms he has negotiated, will take place on Thursday 23rd June.
It is important to say now that just coming to an agreement was a major achievement, and it demonstrates the skills and determination of the politicians and diplomats from all the EU Member States to have been able to get this far. In particular the determination of Donald Tusk as President of the European Council to keep this project moving, and the support of many EU countries for the general concept that some reform is due, is a credit to them all.
All the political leaders have to take into consideration the reaction of their own people to these proposed changes, and I can see that some of these might be difficult to justify at home. History may look back on this time as actually one of the EU’s finest hours.
The fact that the referendum is taking place so early during this period of government is also positive. David Cameron had until the end of next year in which to call the referendum, but it is better that it is done soon and the uncertainty put behind us all.
To understand the dynamics of this, and why we have this situation at all, we have to look back in time.
When the concept of what is now the EU was formed, Europe was emerging from the second of two wars in thirty years, wars which cost the lives of some 70 million people. The effect of these wars was devastating on the people and nations of Europe, some of whom ended up being occupied and ruled again by a foreign power which did little to advance the wellbeing of their populations.
The desire for some mechanism to link the economies of the European countries together and so prevent war again in Europe was understandable, even if by then Germany was divided into two parts, and some European countries would not find themselves free again for more than 30 years.
Now, for the first time ever, a substantial cohesive cultural and economic group was being formed without violence.
Britain, whilst encouraging this concept by joining the group at its first enlargement, had different reasons for doing so. Britain had not been invaded, had its borders changed or been subject to rule by a foreign power since the year 1066. It had a long history of uninterrupted democracy; it was secure on its island.
Britain has viewed the benefits of what is now the EU as mainly a free trade grouping, not a geo-political force. It had no confidence in the workings of a single currency in its present form, and did not immediately see the benefits of a European Super State, or “Ever Closer Union” as it is known.
But Europe is probably the safest place in the world to be today. There is a strong democratic process, very low levels of corruption, the rule of law is well established, and the death penalty is abolished.
Looking now to the economics, Britain has the 5th largest economy in the world, with its own strong currency. More than half of British exports go to countries outside Europe. It is a trading nation, and has been for a long time. In or out of the EU, it would not be ignored by the rest of the world.
There is little doubt that Britain could survive if it left the EU, the question for the British people is would it be better to stay inside?
We must also consider the impact of a British exit on the rest of the EU. Britain makes a substantial net contribution to the EU budget, and is one of the four countries which together make up over 60% of total net contributions. What would happen if Britain exited, would the other countries increase their contributions, or would spending be cut? Either way, the impact would be significant.
The next four months will see a lot of discussion and argument in Britain, from both the In and Out sides. But one thing is certain, that all the claims and predictions put up for discussion by both sides are just that, claims. Nobody can predict the economic or social impact of leaving the EU, because such a thing has not happened before, and hopefully it never will.
We live in a democracy, and so the people will vote, not necessarily with a full understanding of the implications, but often on the basis of pre formed opinions, but that is the price we pay.
However, whether the referendum result is to leave or to stay, Britain will remain a strong market for companies from Europe and around the world.
Whatever the end result, the EU, whilst it is far from perfect, has already achieved, quietly and with diplomacy, something which has evaded other political groups for centuries, that is a real and long lasting peace.
The EU should be proud of itself, and I hope that the British electorate will consider the long term situation when they make their decision on 23rd June.