Like many of my Conservative colleagues I am a Eurosceptic. And like many of them I have been reconciling the views of my constituents, my loyalty to the Prime Minister, my dislike of many European institutions and my belief as to what is ultimately in the best interests of our country at this time.
Ignoring the technicalities of the deal secured by the Prime Minister for the moment, and arguments as to who is right and who is wrong from both the camps, the reality is that it has been a game changer. Dutch voters now want a referendum on membership, and Germany is seeking to curb benefits paid to the children of migrant workers; all over Europe people are casting envious glances at our special status. Whatever you think of the deal David Cameron secured, one thing is certain; it has opened a Pandora’s Box. I am of the belief that the EU has to change to survive and I think our Prime Minister has spearheaded the start of this change.
Those arguing for Brexit maintain this is our last chance, that this is a once in a generation opportunity. But is that necessarily the case? Leaders change, so do moods. Europe is not a monolithic force but a set of evolving circumstances, some are good, some are bad and some are accidental. When countries feel cornered they’ll often force the rules to change. It is happening now for example with the migrant crisis. Only last week the Belgians reinforced their French border with 300 officers and Austria and Slovenia were displaying the temerity to limit asylum applications. Authorities all over Europe are proving unable to cope with the influx and the alarm bells are being raised. The EU’s inability to respond to the sheer pace of demographic change means that it will have to evolve again even if this evolution may seem to us painfully slow. It will be forced to listen to member states demanding greater control of their borders, welfare systems and for stricter application of the asylum rules. It can no longer refuse because if it does it will quickly realise that this crisis will engulf it.
In many ways Brexit is the easier option; it would mean we can just get on with the decisions which govern our lives, make our own laws for our citizens to obey. We would only be answerable to ourselves. But this ignores the simple truth that in an inter-connected world problems and threats require a unified global response. I have seen this time and again in the almost four years that I have been Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Large multilateral organisations such as the EU, NATO or the UN are listened to in a way that no individual country is. That is plain fact.
Then there is the concern, and it’s a valid one, that if we stay in we will be an irrelevance. The main EU projects which are the Euro, Schengen, common border guards, any nascent European army will not involve us because of our special status. And don’t forget that David Cameron has obtained a recognition that the UK will never be part of an ever closer political union. The reality is that Europe is in trouble; both the Euro and the refugee crisis have done much damage and it must be in all our interests to help fix it. The United Kingdom is a respected voice, our democracy is advanced, our economy is booming. We put our money where our mouth is whether it be meeting the OECD recommended spend of 0.7% of GDP on overseas Aid or 2% on Defence. We are one of only a few countries who do both. Our qualities as a nation are best suited to unifying countries rather than dividing them. I think we should feel obliged to participate in the political order of Europe and be responsive to its demands. After all we are a ‘Western’ country, and being in that club is a valuable concept, it means we are committed to democracy, liberal values and the rule of law, not only at home but in the wider world. We shouldn’t have a pick and mix approach if we believe in western values. The EU is an important pillar of the ‘West’ and we are an important pillar inside the EU. We should not be afraid of providing the leadership and sense of direction that the EU is so desperately in need of.
So what influence do we have?
When it comes to economic policy, we are the leading champion of extending the single market, of negotiating trade agreements and cutting red tape. With us gone all these causes would suffer. This goes for justice and home affairs as well, where despite all our opt outs we have been influential, for example providing the current head of Europol and leading co-operation on counter terrorism. Again, on defence, the EU would lack credibility without us. We are one of the EU’s two serious military powers (France the other). EU foreign policy would carry less weight because Britain brings with it a global perspective. As for America, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all countries that fall within my brief, they all see Britain as the link to assisting continental Europeans and the English speaking nations to understand each other better. And how about the Germans? Already they are dominant, partly due to their economy. A British departure would only accentuate the risk of German hegemony.
My friend and colleague Michael Gove, incidentally a politician of the first rank, will argue in his usual eloquent thoughtful way why he thinks the EU is a threat to our sovereignty. He is rightly frustrated by the hundreds of EU rules crossing his desk, none of which he claims we can alter. I do not argue for one moment that these are not areas of concern but at the end of the day even those who wish to leave have to admit that there is a balance to be struck between unbridled sovereignty and influence.
Membership of the EU, like our membership of NATO and the UN, amplifies, the UK’s power and influence on the world stage at this dangerous time. Amplify being the key word. At a time when we are faced with an increasing range of serious threats, cooperation at an international level is more important than ever. The EU has a wide range of tools at its disposal, including security, diplomatic, economic and humanitarian. Our influence in the EU therefore benefits both the EU and the UK. NATO remains the cornerstone of UK defence and we will never give control to the EU over such decisions. However, the EU complements NATO’s higher intensity military activities with important longer-term stabilisation and development work. In a world witnessing the rise of Russia under a belligerent Putin, the daily horror and brutality of Daesh, instability in Libya and the Middle East, the menace of the DPRK and its quest to become nuclear power and the tensions in the South China Seas now surely is the time to stick together rather than to pull out, diminishing the clout of the EU and ourselves in the process?
And then there is the issue of trade. Will we be able to draw up our own trade deals if we leave? Yes of course we will! Our trade with the EU will of course continue as they sell more to us than we sell to them. It is impossible to believe that they would want to freeze out or choke off their market in the UK. But let’s remember that we would have to comply with all EU regulations without having any say over them. And let’s not forget that every Free Trade Agreement we have with other countries is through the EU as a single block. That is why countries want FTA’s. They want access and to deal with a single market. Last week I returned from Canada, In Ottawa I discussed the progress of CETA, Canada’s Free Trade Agreement with the EU which has already taken seven years of negotiation and is still not ratified. These things are complicated. Why should countries dedicate the time and resource to strike bilateral FTA’s with the UK, a small market compared to the EU? How long would it take to establish all the Free Trade Agreements as the UK alone? What would happen in the meantime? And who would ultimately benefit the most? No one can tell us with any certainty because we simply don’t know. These are unchartered waters. Conversely what we do know is an EU wide agreement such as CETA will bring £1.3 billion a year to our economy.
As Minister for the Commonwealth I am regularly asked why trade between Commonwealth countries could not replace trade with the EU. My answer has always been that whilst we want to grow trade within the Commonwealth it will always be ‘as well as’ and not ‘instead of’ trade with the EU. And incidentally Commonwealth trading partners such as New Zealand and Canada very much want the UK to remain in. As the Chancellor George Osborne has just said, world economic conditions are very uncertain and the British economy is smaller than previously thought. This is no time to gamble.
There is so much wrong with the European Union and I’m not going to list all its faults here. Besides, the Leave campaign is making a pretty good job of it! But the EU’s weaknesses and growing unpopularity matter for all of those who care about the West and its contribution to foreign affairs. On the plus side the union has brought peace and stability to its member states and to much of the European continent, it has introduced democratic government into the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe, it has introduced the rule of law and market economics and it works hard to make its neighbours respect those values, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but at least it keeps trying.
What I’m not going to do is participate in ‘Project Fear’; it is a method often adopted by politicians to keep the voters scared and then blindly be led to safety. The media can be equally irresponsible with endless tales of impending doom, most of them imaginary. I genuinely believe we will be alright, if we stay in, or if we leave the EU. Whatever happens politics finds its own level; people always participate, they adapt to change or create it. Wherever I go I find people torn. That is because there are valid arguments on both sides which makes the decision all the harder. But in the end each and everyone of us has to look at our own scales and see which way they tip. This is your vote just as much as it is mine.
Boris Johnson is keen on quoting Cicero. On my pen I have engraved ‘Cui Bono’ (‘to whose profit?) a question attributed to Cicero who in turn was quoting the Roman judge Lucius Cassius. So, who would profit from our leaving the EU? Our friends or our enemies? Would the world be a better, safer, more prosperous place with us in or out?
For me my heart tells me that the UK, given our history, would be fine if we choose to go it alone but my head tells me our place should be in a reformed EU. And my head has triumphed over my heart.