Focus on: EU in or out?

Lucy Mair investigates why British participation in the EU is back under scrutiny

As the eurozone remains in the grip of crisis and without an effective remedy in sight, British politicians and people have let out a collective sigh of relief that the UK doesn't belong to the single currency. Yet British prosperity and stability are nonetheless tied to that of our European neighbours. Claiming that Brussels is becoming more of a burden than a blessing to Britain, eurosceptics say now is the time to reassess British membership of the EU, and possibly devise an exit strategy.

The Commons Backbench Business Committee decides this week whether to give MPs the chance to debate holding the first public vote on Europe since 1975, after a petition calling for a referendum received 100,000 signatures. A Commons vote in favour of referendum wouldn't be binding on the government, but it would increase pressure on David Cameron to respond to the concerns of Tory backbenchers and voters about Europe.

During the Conservative party conference, the prime minister explicitly stated that he wouldn't support a referendum on EU membership, and that the coalition's priority is to sort out the sovereign debt crisis and revive the continent's economy - not abandon it. He was seconded by the former hard-line eurosceptic, Foreign Secretary William Hague, who insisted that questioning Britain's relationship with Europe would do further damage to already shaky economic confidence.

Despite the present crisis the EU offers many benefits to the UK, including the single market economy, which British trade depends on. What's more, the political advantages of being part of a 27-member block are significant. By acting collectively, the EU successfully imposed sanctions on Syria recently, crippling 95 per cent of the country's crude oil sales.

But eurosceptics argue that the balance of power is tipping increasingly in favour of Brussels, where the European Parliament's legislation lies behind obstacles to British competitiveness and growth. From the insistence that EU migrants must be able to claim benefits in the UK, to the planned Financial Transactions Tax on derivatives trades, over 75 per cent of which take place in the City, the EU is demanding more from the British taxpayer and threatening the prosperity of the financial services industry.

It has been over 35 years since British voters have been consulted on Europe. The 27-member European Union of today, with 17 states sharing a single currency and drifting ever closer towards fiscal union, looks very different to the nine-member European Economic Community of 1975. In the interest of democracy, then, perhaps it's time that the question is raised once again.

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