Martin Tideswell: The chips are down as nation is set to debate EU hot potato
AMID the bizarre weather, the complaints about the gritting lorries, the flooding and the general January malaise, many people may have missed the debate on Britain's membership of the EU.
But the issue which may not seem very important to us on a cold winter's day in 2013 is sure to become THE political hot potato as the months and years tick by.
Indeed, there is a good chance that Europe – or rather the UK's involvement with it – could be the topic which defines the next General Election.
David Cameron's stated ambition to give the British people a referendum on the country's membership of the EU was not entirely unexpected.
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In response growing public discontent about the power of Brussels, the Prime Minister said it was 'time for the British people to have their say'.
(Well, if he's still in power after the country goes to the polls, that is).
Mr Cameron has pledged an in/out referendum because he says the democratic consent for our membership of the EU is currently 'wafer thin'. Some Conservatives and Euro-sceptics branded the speech 'statesmanlike', saying it was long-overdue from a British Prime Minister.
Other political commentators felt it was ill-judged grand-standing which was bound to upset our continental neighbours and give businesses the jitters.
I think the truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme views.
Sentinel Letter writer Ivan Latham is unequivocal in his opposition to the referendum and the idea of this country leaving the EU.
He wrote: 'The day the UK exits the EU is the day I will book the tickets for a one-way trip for our family back to Berlin'.
Mr Latham believes the country needs a Pro-European voice to 'counter the whining of Little Englanders who comprise UKIP and Euro-sceptics'.
While I can't agree that only those two camps are concerned about our membership of the EU – and, more importantly, all it entails – Mr Latham is right about one thing.
He questioned: 'Just how educated is your average Brit to make an informed decision?'
The truth is we don't tend to have enlightened debate about Europe in this country. Discussions are always hi-jacked by those who would have us ditch what they see as a blood-sucking, federalist nightmare and those who would have us building even closer ties with Brussels.
Mr Cameron seems to have bet his party's (and possibly the UK's) medium-term future on 17 red, as it were, and is preparing to spin the wheel if re-elected.
The problem, as I see it, is precisely one of education because the British public, as it stands now, is in no position to cast a vote.
We simply don't understand the arguments for and against membership of the EU and we don't really know what's at stake.
For example, the EU is, unquestionably, Britain's key trading partner and one can understand UK businesses feeling nervous about severing the umbilical cord to the continent.
But the truth is no-one really knows what the effect would be on UK trade and jobs of us 'opting out'.
It's not as if being in the EU is the only option. Other countries within Europe trade with the EU while retaining far greater independence.
My fear is that there is a very real danger the facts will be lost amid the rhetoric and the mud-slinging.
One thing that I am sure the Pro-EU campaigners would not contest is that, in recent years, very real and genuine concerns have built up in British households about the growing influence of Europe in our daily lives. There is a feeling among many (and I'm not just talking here about the far right, UKIP or fully paid-up Euro-sceptics) that the British Government and, indeed, our judicial system is slowly losing power to the behemoth that is the EU.
These issues are understandably wrapped up with concerns over immigration, over EU nationals 'milking' the British welfare system and moves towards constructs such as a European Army which many feel are undermining this country's independence.
There is no getting away from the fact that the reason no British Government in recent years has held a referendum on Britain adopting the euro over the pound is because the powers-that-be know damn well it would have been a resounding 'no'.
On this Sceptered Isle there's never been much of an appetite for the EU project which countries like France and Germany have embraced so warmly in the light of wars which ravaged the continent. In the light of the PM's speech, now is the time for an honest and open debate on the pros and cons, the benefits and disadvantages of our membership of the EU.
How much does it cost the British taxpayer? How much do we, as country, receive in return? What are the genuine benefits of membership to your average Briton? How does the UK fare compared to countries such as France and Germany? Will opting out of the EU give this country greater controls over its borders and improve job prospects for British workers?
Ignore the hysteria. As my late Sentinel colleague John Abberley, pictured left, argued many times, asking such questions doesn't mean you are anti-European, a racist or a troublemaker.
It simply means that you are asking the right questions – as you are perfectly entitled to do.