On these pages today, Northern Ireland’s longest-serving MEP issues an extraordinary warning about the future of the UK within the European Union.
Jim Nicholson, who has been an Ulster Unionist representative in the European Parliament since 1989, speaks out amid the clear snub to David Cameron over the decision by other EU leaders to appoint Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president.
Mr Nicholson does not pretend to be an ardent pro-European: he says that he will suspend his own decision on the best future course for Britain until the pros and cons of future membership have been comprehensively debated, with all the facts known.
But he fears that the appointment of the arch-federalist Mr Juncker will precipitate a UK departure without such a debate.
Mr Nicholson’s comments are of huge significance, because as a long-standing member of the European Parliament he is in a good position to gauge the mood among other member states. He interprets yesterday’s snub of the prime minister as a sign that other countries may now be happy for the UK to quit.
Mr Nicholson is correct to say that the EU, for all its many shortcomings, has done countless things that have been of major advantage to the Province and its economy.
He is also right to say that it is alarming to think of Britain quitting ahead of a comprehensive debate.
But matters are now largely out of Mr Cameron’s hands. His premiership is already vulnerable to the surge in support for Ukip, that will likely grow after yesterday’s development. That party could destroy the Tories by taking votes in key marginals.
Britain is already on an outer EU tier that comprises those countries that are not part of the eurozone (and keen to stay so).
After the financial crisis, the inner zone is intent on binding closer together, and closer to federalism, thus making the outer tier even more of an anomaly.
This is uncharted territory for Europe, and perilously so for sceptical nations of which the UK is the foremost.