The EU must know we're prepared to quit
Fifteen years ago, as Chief Executive of Business for Sterling, I set up the national ‘no’ campaign against joining the euro. Our slogan was ‘Europe yes, euro no’. We saw the danger of giving up the pound and control of our interest rates, but also the benefit to business and jobs of being in the single market.
Some argued that we should join the euro regardless, just as they argue today that we should stay in the European Union come what may. But most Conservatives take a more hard-headed view. We see the economic advantage of being in a market without tariff barriers, and of co-operation in many areas, but have deep concerns about a growing loss of national sovereignty and the drive towards a European superstate.
We are concerned about the growth of regulation; we worry that the Eurozone’s need to support their currency will demand even deeper integration; and while we know that free movement is an integral part of being in a successful market, we believe the levels of migration to our country have been unsustainable.
It is precisely these concerns that the Prime Minister’s proposed reforms to the EU are intended to address. Naturally the changes have been dismissed by those for whom no reform will ever be enough, but in fact they would be substantial.
They would ensure that Britain’s interests outside the Eurozone would be protected, allowing countries with the euro to integrate more deeply without imposing damaging regulation on us. They would require the EU to have a long overdue focus on competitiveness, signing new trade deals and cutting regulation.
On the crucial matter of sovereignty, the UK would be exempted from “ever closer union”, and there would be greater role for national parliaments. And on the issue of most concern to the public, immigration, the abuse of free movement would be prevented. By stopping people from claiming generous in-work benefits until they have lived here and contributed for a number of years we could ensure that our welfare system is not an artificial draw for people from the rest of the EU to come to Britain.
The significance of these reforms is that they would not only halt the drive towards ever deeper integration: they would actually begin to reverse the process. That would represent a fundamental change in our relationship with the EU.
This is why I believe that Conservatives should support the Prime Minister’s renegotiation, and why this week I and others will launch Conservatives for Reform in Europe. Our aim is to give a voice to the thousands of Party members and supporters who believe that change in Europe is vital, want the Prime Minister to succeed, and if he does will vote to stay in a reformed EU.
If we cannot secure the reforms Britain needs many of us would be prepared to leave – and our EU partners who must decide whether to agree these changes should know that. But that is not the same as saying that we should leave regardless. And let’s be clear: leaving would not be a cost free option.
Quite apart from the risk to inward investment, the price of access to the market which British business requires would likely be a substantial payment to the EU, the free movement of labour, and no say over the rules – all the very things that the proponents of leaving claim we would no longer have. We would not have regained sovereignty at all. It would not be in the interests of the club from which we had just walked out to give us a free trade agreement with all the benefits and none of the costs.
It’s not hard to be vexed by some of the ways the EU works. But irritation is not enough to end a 40-year relationship. We need soberly to weigh up the costs and the benefits. And the potential risks are not just economic. Today security concerns are paramount. As Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice I became acutely aware of the value of European arrangements to share intelligence and speed up the return of criminal suspects to bring them to justice. And by opting out of criminal justice and security measures that do not suit Britain, while taking part in those that keep us safe, we decide for ourselves where it is in our national interest to co-operate.
If reforms are secured, Britain would have the best of both worlds. We would be outside the euro, and protected from deeper integration, but able to access the single market. We would remain in the world’s greatest trading block of over 500 million people, but still be outside the Schengen area and so able to maintain our borders. We would need to be very sure about the alternative before throwing such an advantageous position away, yet we are not. Leaving without the first idea of what we might get instead would be to jump into a void.
What matters most to the British people is their jobs and security, living standards and public services. Whatever our views about the EU, the key long term challenges facing this this country – how to deliver health and social care with an ageing population, how to increase our competitiveness and productivity, how to deal with our debt and live within our means – would not suddenly be solved by leaving.
Tackling these issues requires us to continue with the successful policies that have put us at the top of the world league for economic growth. And we need to prevent the most left-wing Labour leader most of us have seen in a lifetime from ever gaining office.
Our critics said that a referendum would never happen, but the electorate put their trust in the Prime Minister, and he has delivered the first vote on EU membership in a generation. Now we should support his fight for reform – and when the issue has been settled once and for all by the public, the Conservative family must come together, and continue to rebuild our country.