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The revolutionary referendum awaits; COMMENT.

THE European Union faces some of its greatest challenges since this extraordinary community of integrated democracies emerged from the ashes of a war-torn continent.

How should European leaders respond to the challenge of refugees fleeing the carnage in Syria? What is the best way to counter the threat posed by the so-called Islamic State as it strengthens its position in Libya and other countries within easy reach of Europe? How should the EU respond to the rise of China and the threat its "dumping" poses to our steel industries and manufacturing base? What is the most effective way to defend ourselves against cyber-attacks which have the potential to bring infrastructure and services to a halt? And if the Ukraine crisis has slipped off our agenda it certainly hasn't in Moscow. What will the EU do if pro-Russian forces make a new push to divide this giant country? You might expect an ambitious Britain to try to jump into the EU's cockpit, wresting control of the union's trajectory from France and Germany. The UK was a driving force behind the single market - is this the moment for it to press the reboot button on an EU wearied by the eurozone's woes? There are many avid pro-Europeans in the UK but the idea of the country leaving the EU excites a special kind of passion and imagination. You can hunt out academics and theorists who believe deeply in further integration and the EU as a force for peace and prosperity but it is the Ukippers who founded a political party and hounded the PM until he committed to a referendum.

Scottish nationalism was once the goal of activists on the political fringe. The 2014 independence referendum established the proposals for a standalone Scotland as a mainstream idea that sensible people could - and should - think and talk about.

In the coming months the UK will face the very real possibility that the country will vote to leave the EU. It is no longer just the dream of romanticists in a pub; it is a policy option for which civil servants will make contingency plans. The No vote in Scotland did not kill nationalism. The final hour "vow" by the Westminster leaders made another way of devolution inevitable and the SNP won 56 of Scotland's 59 seats in last year's election.

The experience of an EU referendum could have similarly transformative effects on UK politics even if there is a No vote.

There are good reasons why First Ministers across the UK are so opposed to a June referendum. Election campaigns will run at the same time as pro and anti-EU forces hog airtime; it is hard to conceive of how cross-party referendum campaigning will work.

Thankfully voters are smart and can think about multiple issues. It is not ideal to have an overlap of campaigns but this is a unique opportunity for all of us to think hard about the future of our communities and their challenges and opportunities within Wales, the UK, the EU and beyond.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 4, 2016
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