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Please don't snort - this is a new chapter in European history

A European Union flag flies in front of a Union flag Credit: Reuters

At the risk of sounding even more pompous than normal, I feel obliged to point out that this is a very big moment, for the prime minister, for the government, for all of us - oh, and also, for almost the whole of Europe.

Its significance is less in the scale and ambition of the European reform package that David Cameron hopes to agree with 27 other EU leaders on Thursday night and Friday morning - although as I will explain, I am not with those who see the deal as trivial and unimportant.

It is that, as and when the prime minister gets what he wants (and although none of us can be certain what an acceptable deal would be for him, Downing Street is signalling that a deal is highly likely), at that point he will secure cabinet agreement to recommend the UK stays in the EU, subject to a referendum on June 23.

David Cameron hopes to agree a deal with 27 other EU leaders Credit: Reuters

The referendum is what matters.

That is because it is a vote more important to this country's destiny than any we've all had since we voted to remain in the then Common Market in 1975 (there is no need for me to get into a punch up about whether the Scottish referendum in 2014 mattered more, because quite a lot of us weren't allowed to vote in that).

As it happens, because the size and scope of today's EU is so much greater than its precursor, the Common Market, I would argue this latest vote is more significant than even that last one.

So although your own pulse may not be set racing by arguments about whether we are richer or poorer, safer or more insecure, freer or more subjugated as a result of being a full voting member of the EU, it is almost time for you to grit your teeth, put a cold towel around your neck and listen to what the passionate advocates for "remain" and "leave" have to say.

Oh and by the way, if the country - which more or less since it joined the Common Market has argued for less Europe not more, and has been the champion of a single trading and business space and the opponent of a common social space - were to go its own way, the destiny of the EU would be changed fairly profoundly too.

Now given how much is at stake, some will feel that what will be debated by government leaders in Brussels in the coming hours is bathetic in its paucity of ambition.

There are three outstanding issues to resolve:

  • Will the independent powers of the Bank of England to regulate and supervise our banks and financial institutions be permanently protected by a promise of future EU treaty reform that would prevent eurozone members from duffing us up in a commercial sense?
  • Quite how far will the EU go in allowing the prime minister to limit child benefit payments to migrants and for how long will it allow him to lessen in-work credits to them?
  • Will the UK have an exemption - also to be enshrined in a future treaty amendment - from the EU precept that all members are on an inexorable journey to "ever closer union" (or less autonomy for national governments).

Now I am going to say something deeply unfashionable - which is that these three decisions are more important than most commentators and politicians will allow.

The point is that they collectively represent a recognition by the EU that limits to its political, monetary and economic integration are not transitional but permanent.

In that sense, they represent the official death knell for a United States of Europe that was the ambitions - sometimes vocalised, sometimes disingenuously denied - of the EU's founders and fundamentalists.

So even if you think David Cameron has won less for Britain from his tortuous negotiations with the other 27 than he might have done, he may succeed in rewriting European theology.