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Economy must be our top priority - Nick

May 14, 2013 4:54 PM

This article first appeared in the North Devon Journal.

Following UKIP's showing in the local elections, much is being made in the media of Conservative infighting on Europe. It is all reminiscent of the John Major era.

But their endless internal trauma on Britain's membership of the EU seems odd when you consider that the Coalition has already passed into law a guarantee of a referendum next time there is a change to the constitutional arrangements in the EU.

That moment is unlikely to be terribly long in coming, given the ongoing saga within the Eurozone and the certainty that something is going to have to change.

Pending that, our current political priorities should be on jobs, growth and a stronger economy, not navel-gazing about if, when and how a referendum may take place in years to come.

There is clearly political momentum on the Europe issue at the moment, which will logically come to a head in a referendum. The public hasn't been given a say on Europe since 1975 and will have to have a chance to do so. Politically there may be an argument for doing this sooner rather than later (and, whatever the outcome, "shooting the UKIP fox" which appears to have many Tories quaking in their boots).

But the national interest would be better served by a little strategic patience. If the Prime Minister tries now to negotiate some unique deal for Britain, I share the views of Nigel Lawson and Michael Portillo that little of substance will be achieved; just some tiny measures which will then be completely exaggerated.

But if we allow the Eurozone crisis to play out - and it remains to be seen how many more big cheques the German taxpayer cheques will write to keep the Eurozone intact - big changes will be afoot. Several countries will "fall out of" the Euro.

The size, shape and structure of the EU is likely then to change, presenting the perfect opportunity for the British public to take a view.

Liberal Democrat policy at the last election was that when there is next a significant change in our relationship with the EU we would hold an IN/OUT referendum. This remains our position.

This issue won't go away and political pressure will continue to build, but now is not yet the time to hold an in/out referendum. Getting our economy back on track must be our top priority.