Tonight sees the first of two head-to-head live debates on Europe between Nick Clegg, the leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister, and Nigel Farage, head of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP). The second debate will take place in a week's time.
The absence of the leaders of the UK's two main political parties may temper the events' box-office potential, but ahead of forthcoming European Parliament elections in May (where UKIP is expected to perform strongly) and against the backdrop of a possible UK referendum in 2017 on EU membership, the debates are not only timely but also offer a rare opportunity to hear two senior politicians' views and arguments on Britain's future role in Europe. Expect issues surrounding trade, immigration, sovereignty, regulation and the euro zone all to feature heavily.
An ideal time then to provide a quick reminder of some of the key findings from the EEF survey, Manufacturing: Our Future in Europe, which we published late last year and which outlined manufacturers' views on the UK's relationship with the EU.
Firstly, on the issue of EU membership, the message from manufacturers was unequivocal.
In our survey, 85% of UK-based manufacturers stated that they wanted to remain within the 28-member bloc.
Support for the EU% of respondents expressing an opinion
Sources: EEF euro survey 2002 and EEF Europe survey 2013.
In part this reflects the very strong trade links between the UK and the rest of the EU. Almost 90% of EEF members sell directly or indirectly to customers in the bloc, with three in five respondents in our survey reporting that the EU will remain a key part of their export strategy. Conversely, nearly one-third of companies said they would be less likely to increase investment in the UK if we were to leave the EU.
Change the tune
One of the report's key recommendations for government was to reframe the debate in terms of how EU membership can be good for growth and jobs in the UK economy.
There was a clear steer from manufacturers that all sides of the Europe debate are doing a poor job of articulating the issues at stake. A quarter of EEF members are currently confused about what all this could mean for their business and there is a large appetite to hear a stronger business perspective.
Room for improvement
As Mr Farage is sure to highlight in the debates, critics can point to areas where the EU is getting it wrong—too much regulation, inefficient decision making and an expensive and expansive bureaucracy. But whereas UKIP's argument is that Britain would fare better following an "amicable divorce" from the EU, manufacturing businesses are in agreement that the UK can achieve more by seeking a better deal from within, pushing for reforms to support business growth, jobs and wider prosperity. Our survey highlighted the policy priorities that manufacturers believe to be important for their businesses.
Policy priorities% of manufacturers citing as important for EU action
Source: EEF Europe Survey 2013
Likely political theatre aside, the hope is that the debates will go at least some way to both widening and improving the level of debate on Europe that has long been lacking in the UK. Only then will British consumers and businesses be able to make informed choices about our future in the EU and investors have a clearer sense of what the UK's priorities are in relation to the negotiation of a new settlement.