Green Party MP Caroline Lucas today backed a referendum of Britain’s membership of the EU. This was apparently such a surprise to the world at large that her name was instantly trending on Twitter.

But that someone on the left supports a referendum should come as no shock. Because this country’s public debate about the EU has never reflected the issues that truly matter. Britain’s discussion about the way that our continental relations are constituted has always been seen as a cultural split. Either you are a real ale drinking chips and gravy swilling UK nationalist, disgusted by the very idea of sharing decisions with the Frogs and the Krauts, or you are a multicultural olive loving, wine drinking liberal lefty, in which case you think every descision about everything should be made in Brussels by Eurocrats who speak jargon in 15 languages. If you are the former, you always want a referendum, so you can vote to leave. If you are the latter, you always oppose a referendum, because you hate the people and don’t trust them to polish your shoes. Or so the media narrative goes. As with American politics, we’ve ended up chasing our tail into the oblivion of culture wars.

But what we have seen over the last year or so is that this cultural debate was always periferal. Because the EU as it is was always primarily an economic project. And rather than debating the economics – rather than discussing whether it makes sense for Greece and Germany to have the same interest rates, which regulations we should share, and which should be set at home, we argued about whether or not we should still hold a grudge against the French for foul play in the Napoleonic wars.

And when we debate these economic issues, as with everything in a democracy, we should not fear the people.

Speaking ahead of the Commons vote today, Caroline Lucas said:

“I support a referendum on our membership of the EU because I am pro-democracy, not because I’m anti-EU – and because I want to see a radical reform of the way Europe operates.

“The EU has the potential to spread peace and make our economies more sustainable, and to promote democracy and human rights, at home and throughout the world.

“But it must urgently change direction, away from an obsessive focus on competition and free trade and towards placing genuine co-operation and environmental sustainability at its heart.

“Thanks to the bureaucratic and remote way which the EU works, many people today are no longer sure what is it for. So the challenge now is to make those institutions more democratic and accountable – and to develop a more compelling vision of the EU’s role and purpose.

“A referendum would allow the space for that debate about the future of the Union to occur, and to ensure that the goals of the European project really are in the best interests of EU citizens.”

And that, surely, is the point. We should ask ourselves what the EU is for. And we should force it to give the answer that it is for its people, that it exists because perhaps some decisions are better made at a continent wide level, and that we do perhaps need practical channels through which to mediate our mutual solidarity.

And if the union can’t give that answer – perhaps more to the point, if it can’t articulate how it is that it makes the lives of the majority of its members better, then it needs seriously to examine itself.

Caroline Lucas’ amendment says this: “seek to build support for radical reform of the EU, increasing its transparency and accountability, refocusing its objectives on co-operation and environmental sustainability rather than competition and free trade, and enabling member states to exercise greater control over their own economies.”

And who could disagree with that?

So, yes, we should debate what the EU is for, and who it is for. And if the only way to force that discussion is to vote on our membership of what is increasingly becoming a capitalist’s club, then so be it. Perhaps the timing isn’t ideal, but sometimes, you don’t get to pick your turf.

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.