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EU poll matters more than Holyrood election

Terry smiling headWith two polls to contemplate in the first half of the year, no wonder there is talk of campaign fatigue already setting in. It adds to Nicola Sturgeon’s concern that the EU referendum risks getting in the way of the Scottish elections. Actually, it is the other way around.

They may as well call the Scottish vote next week as everyone knows the SNP will form the next government. All we need to know is by what margin. So let’s start counting.

The EU vote is far more important at this time, and there is a danger that Scottish voters will be distracted from a once-in-a-generation decision on which there is no going back. At least not for some considerable time. We simply have to get it right.

A starting point for the EU campaign is ensuring the public has a better understanding of how it works, let alone whether it is a benefit or a hindrance to Britain.

Traditionally for many Brits, Europe meant three things: the Eurovision Song Contest, Champions League football, and somewhere to go on holiday. Latterly it has been seen as a thoroughfare for a pitiful stream of refugees and the chaotic financial mess in Greece.

As for the EU itself, does anyone know what the European Parliament does? Can anyone name their MEP? Does anyone care?

In fact it is the Commission – an unelected body of bureaucrats – which actually runs the EU and comes up with the ‘directives’, a description that makes it clear that these are orders to be obeyed.

No wonder businesses object to being pushed around and told what to do. Trade bodies spend a lot of time lobbying, but too often the outcome is seen as unnecessary meddling and more cost.

Yet, what is the real alternative, as depicted in Nigel and Boris’s world? The Leave campaign make much of the reduction in all this regulation, but surely having to negotiate trading agreements for every sector with each of 28 nations would create far more bureaucracy and procrastination than dealing with one trading bloc?

The chief executive of BT warned this weekend that quitting the EU could drag business back to a previous era of import taxes and regulations. Gavin Patterson, one of the signatories to letter published last week calling for Britain to stay in the EU, said the EU gives British business added protection.

He told The Mail on Sunday: “Critics complain of EU bureaucracy and rules.. It is one thing to have the British Government batting for BT – as it has been. It is even better when the EU, representing 28 governments and half a billion people, puts its weight behind demands to sort things out.”

Patterson pointed out that EU regulations would continue to affect British exporters to the region even if the UK pulled out. “What business leader would try to run his company by unilaterally giving up a place at the table where crucial deals are struck?” he asked.

This weekend has also heard a warning from the G20 meeting of world leaders that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU would cause a shock to the world economy.

Challenging such a collective view risks being accused of a stubborn refusal to accept the reality of a Brexit. For UKIP leader Nigel Farage to dismiss the G20 as a bunch of ‘mates’ falls firmly into the head-in-the-sand side of the argument.

However, world leaders do not have a monopoly on wisdom and this communique does look a little over-stated. We have heard it all before: from Y2K to bird flu plagues, and the world has become a little immune to being warned of imminent armageddon.

What it should do is awaken those for whom the vote on EU membership hinges only on immigration. This too is crucially important, but there is far more at stake than the Daily Express would have us believe. It is the task of both sides in the debate to ensure voters get the facts and are not confused and misled by ill-informed propaganda, nor by self-interested lobbyists.

The problem for most voters is knowing or caring enough about the key issues, and therefore what they are being asked to vote upon. Does the businessman in Tillicoultry worry about the impact of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (2004/39/EC) on the City of London? Does the City banker care about the effect of the directive 2008/98/EC on waste on businesses in Clackmannanshire?

Prime Minister David Cameron emerged from his marathon meetings metaphorically waving a piece of paper to announce like a modern day Neville Chamberlain that he had secured an agreement with his European counterparts. Yet, the news bulletins that followed failed to say exactly what the agreement contained, and it took quite a bit of research to find out.

His supporters claim that the deal he reached – on the single currency and closer harmonisation – gives Britain the arm’s length relationship it seeks with Europe. His opponents may see it as just as worthless as his pre-war predecessor’s famous agreement.

For the rest of us to pass judgement it will require more explanation and transparency than we have had so far.

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