David Cameron has laid it plain - if elected as a majority government in 2015, the Conservatives will offer a referendum on membership of the EU in 2017.
The intention as described in his speech today, is to renegotiate the UK's membership in the EU, with more openness, more flexibility and a relationship with more direct accountability, so that a referendum would mean that a "yes" vote was for a new EU relationship. "No" of course, would mean departing the EU. What isn't clear is what would happen if there was not to be a new EU relationship that made a substantive difference to the status quo.
David Cameron is obviously driven by politics. He wants to sideswipe UKIP, so that its primary policy is, essentially, his. Why vote UKIP (and risk putting Labour in) when you can vote Conservative and have your say on EU Membership? Labour leader Ed Miliband has made it clear he doesn't support a referendum because of "the uncertainty" it creates, and the beleaguered Liberal Democrats have long had a love affair with the European project.
However, there is more to it than that, he wants to send a clear message to other EU Member States that they better negotiate a good enough deal for the UK that he can sell it to UK voters, or those voters will say "no".
You see voters wont be choosing between the status quo and a new relationship that has yet to be negotiated, they would be choosing between a new relationship and leaving the EU. So something will have to be negotiated. That puts pressure on those Member States keen on the UK remaining to compromise significantly, for the consequences of failure would be considerable.
It's telling though that the consequences of a "no" vote remain vague. For most campaigners for a UK exit from the EU, in UKIP, don't want to abandon the single market, they just want to abandon the customs union, EU law and the financial transfers to support EU programmes. They want to keep open borders for trade and investment. However, to say "no" to membership of the EU doesn't actually say that. It is throwing it all away and starting from scratch. That's a strawman that suits supporters of the EU, but isn't what UKIP wants and isn't what almost all opponents of EU membership argue.
However, what is this all about more fundamentally? Why is there such antipathy towards the EU in the UK? Why is there such a different attitude on continental Europe?
It all goes back to history and how it is taught at school to children in Britain and on the continent.
The British view of history before the EU is fairly simple. The UK fought and won World War 2 (yes with American help), as such it contributed to being a bulwark against Nazism and subsequently against the threat of Soviet invasion from behind the iron curtain. Deep in the British national psyche is this belief in the justice of this win, that Britain protected Europe from freedom. Britain doesn't and didn't see the European project as doing that for Britain, but as being a way of opening up markets and allowing trade and travel. Britain didn't see it as a way of sharing its welfare state with those from far poorer countries.
The countries on the continent think quite differently. The citizens of the countries that believe they were victims of World War 2, i.e. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, believe that the European project is about peace, and is about defusing centuries of nationalist tensions and rivalries. It is seen as protecting their freedoms, bear in mind these countries all endured years of Nazi occupation and fighting in the streets and fields of their countries. Britain had the Blitz, but it was never occupied. The strong belief that the EU is the foundation of keeping the peace in Europe endures because there are generations still alive who can tell tales of horror and poverty of how it was before. That tale isn't told in the UK which won, rather than was occupied.
The citizens of the countries that fell on the wrong side of the iron curtain think differently again. For them, the war was followed by over 40 years of tyranny and totalitarianism. For them, joining the EU (and NATO) is about turning away from Moscow and turning towards the West. Notwithstanding the money that comes from EU cohesion funds for being the poorest countries in the EU, the likes of Poland, Romania and Latvia see the EU as part of their process of civilising government, of tackling corruption and promoting core principles such as the separation of powers. Their view of the EU is understandably different given the darkness from whence they recently emerged.
Finally there is the guilty. Germany (and it wouldn't admit it, Austria). Germans have hammered into them war guilt, Holocaust guilt, combined with part of the country also carrying relief of having emerged from the same totalitarianism as its eastern neighbours. For Germany the EU is a way of doing good, of fueling prosperity, human rights and values of freedom, secularism, tolerance, productivity and accountability. Germany embraces it as salving its conscience over what happened in the war, and what happened in the countries that were occupied.
So Britain comes from it differently, and has done so fairly consistently. Britain has long been critical of the Common Agricultural Policy, and gained a partial rebate of its contribution as a result. Britain has long pushed for reforms for greater transparency and accountability for EU budgets for controls on major projects and scepticism over the growth in EU regulation and spending.
However, it is now coming to a crunch. There is a profound widespread opposition among many in the UK to EU Membership, not because of free trade, not because of free movement to travel, but because of opposition to petty regulations, opposition to EU spending not only on a profligate polity and bureaucracy, but to well-heeled industrial farmers in France, to spendthrift Greek infrastructure projects. There is opposition to people from poorer EU Member States claiming welfare benefits, free health care and education, having paid no tax in the UK. There is opposition to mass uncontrolled migration from those countries.
Some of the fears are genuine, some of them are beat ups, and there is a lot of bluster about how much the EU costs the UK budget, lots of nonsense that the European Convention on Human Rights came with EU Membership (it comes with being a member of the Council of Europe) and that all the EU brings is regulation (when it also brings prohibitions against governments subsidising businesses that compete with those from other EU Member States).
However, EU Memberships is a constitutional matter. EU law is supreme in the UK, the UK government is bound to implement most EU law (it needs to negotiate a specific opt out or conditions otherwise, which it also needs agreement on). The EU takes a small portion of national VAT revenue to spend on the Commission, and the European Parliament is not sovereign, the European Council is. So imagine a supranational government where the elected representatives of the citizens are not in charge.
It is right for the UK to renegotiate its membership of the European Union, and I will write about why later. What is wrong with the EU is plenty, what is good about the EU is few, but significant. I believe it would be great if the UK could renegotiate EU Membership and indeed the European Union on grounds that would be outward looking, liberal, and working towards less laws, except those to bind the economic and social freedoms that Europe should be famous for.
However, I don't believe that this can happen, I don't believe any UK government can remotely negotiate EU Membership that can deliver more freedom and less government (because they don't believe in it at all), and I don't believe the EU is compatible with that.