Mr Chairman, it is indeed an honour to be addressing the Conservative Europe Group, or as I still like to refer to it, the Conservative Group for Europe. I am honoured to follow senior Conservatives who over the years have used this opportunity to set out their position on what has for far too long and by far too many been seen as a vexed question, rather than as a series of opportunities. To say that I find this depressing is somewhat of an understatement. As I find myself saying so often, I am a sunny optimist, who with all the self doubt that my faith and Tory philosophy has brought to me, remain confident that our best days lie ahead.
I had prepared to address you about the dangers of forgetting that only a few generations ago, Europe was a continent racked by war. As we gather here tonight, Paris is still reeling from its most grievous attack since the end of the war, Brussels, the capital of Europe in so many ways, is in lockdown with police and armed forces on the streets, Eastern Ukraine is smouldering and the seaways, ports, railways and roads of Europe are seeing the biggest mass movement of people since 1945. You would have to be particularly ostrich-like not to notice how precarious the so called peace of Europe can often be.
2015 is a year of significant anniversaries for our continent. 200 years since the Congress of Vienna, 100 years since the Battle of Loos, when the flower of our regular army met its end amidst the slagheaps of northern France, 70 years since VE Day, 40 years since the UK EU Referendum and 25 years this week since the resignation of Margaret Thatcher. Quite a list, isn’t it.
We can add one more, which is important to me. It is 30 years since I first joined the Conservative Party.
When I joined our Party, one of our slogans was “The Party of Europe”. As an activist, I saw what happened during and after the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher. We forget the lessons of that and its aftermath at our peril. We cannot allow the issue of Europe to become personal, or to affect the functioning of our party. We must remember that the more we have talked about Europe, as a constitutional issue, the less relevant our discourse became to the lives of people we were supposed to represent.
The recent death of that great Conservative and great proponent of European unity, Lord Howe of Aberavon, has given us all a chance to reflect upon his life and work. As Solicitor General in the early 1970s, he steered the European Communities Act through the House of Commons. That tradition of Solicitors General taking legislation through the House continues today, you might be pleased to know, although not quite as epoch making as the 1972 Act, I have to admit.
It will come as no surprise to you that I regard this Welsh lawyer politician as a role model in many ways. As a Welshman but also a patriotic Briton, Geoffrey instinctively understood that there was absolutely no contradiction between the various parts that made up the bigger picture. I am Welsh, British and European all at the same time, and there is no contradiction in this. Its something that we British Unionists have always had no problem with, which is why membership of the European Union contains no hang ups for us, either.
When it came to the EU, Geoffrey Howe always had that essential self-belief, that confidence which is something that all of us who advocate our membership must continue to possess. It seems to me that those who believe that we should walk away from the EU are frightened. Frightened, perhaps fundamentally, by themselves and their own fears rather than looking at how remarkably successful we have been at securing our national interest within the EU. Those who talk about the inexorable road to a superstate ignore the fact that the UK is not a member of the Eurozone and isn’t a member of Schengen. The variable geometry of the EU is part and parcel of its evolution and the UK is in the vanguard. And yet, they remain frightened.
At times, our membership will mean disagreement and sometimes vigorous disagreement. For those who are frightened by the arguments that we often have to have with our partners in the EU, I say, have courage, and remember that real improvement only comes about by way of rigorous debate and cross examination. I would be rather worried if everything was done with a dose of saccharine. If you can’t be frank with your friends, who can you be frank with? Underpinning this, I have always believed that our commitment to membership allows us this freedom to be frank with our friends.
I passionately believe that our future lies in a reformed EU, precisely because I take the long view. By doing this, and by gaining a better sense of perspective, we will better understand our own role in the world and will be able to set a clear future course. What do I mean by this? Namely that we must be honest that the sharing of some of our power, our sovereignty, as a result of our accession in 1973 and subsequent treaty changes, has been necessary and beneficial in order to enhance our role in the world and to improve the standards of living for our people.
If we take a short term view, then the story of the European Union has been one that looks pretty frightening- of crisis over the last few years, which has fuelled fear and even led to talk of the collapse of the EU itself. However, we must remember that this is not the first time the nations and institutions of Europe have experienced problems, and it will not be the last.
But crisis is a time of opportunity, as well. As Jean Monnet, wrote in his memoirs ‘Europe would be built through crises’ and would be ‘the sum of their solutions’. We should not fear the problems like the migration crisis, but instead realise the best way forward is with a clear commitment to reform and improvement, as the Prime Minister does.
By taking the long view, it becomes immediately clear that when it comes to Europe and the very idea of the nation state, things continue to evolve.
In a nutshell, old notions of “independence” are increasingly found to be hollow. Interdependence is the reality of our lives today.
The nation state is still evolving, as it always has done, from the Field of the Cloth of Gold to the Peace of Westphalia, to the French Revolution and the unification of Italy and Germany. The arrangement the EU offers is an important part of the mix, allowing Europeans to celebrate and maintain their differences while at the same time reminding them how much they have in common. I have never understood how the Scottish Nationalists can argue for their independence and at the same time claim to want to be part of the European Union.
And to those who wish to leave the EU, what does this independence really look like? In short, a lot of work in running to stand still. If we are to carry on enjoying the benefits of access to other markets, then we are going to have to get on with the job of negotiating free trade deals with the nations and blocs that were covered by EU agreements or negotiations. We might find ourselves in a queue, taking some time to get all of this sorted out. Longer, much longer, I suspect than the Article 50 withdrawal process itself. All this running to stand still, creating an interdependence that we have anyway. How is that good for business in my constituency?
Does withdrawal mean that we turn left or right? Is the future to be tariff barriers and all power to the Soviets or are we to be a colder and larger Singapore?
All this adds up to this; that those who want to leave are divided as to their objectives and incoherent when it comes to their vision of the future. It is just the sort of incoherence that we see at the heart of Scottish or Welsh Nationalism, with its language of independence and belief in membership of supranational entities and then the sort of economic aspirations that can only come with free enterprise and lower taxes but with the type of economic policies that risk relegating Scotland and Wales to Albanian or Moldovan levels of prosperity.
The EU today embodies interdependence. It sees all its members building relationships, communicating and interacting across borders. It has replaced all that rivalry for power and resources with mutual respect, and nullified all the mistrust and opposing interests, which were so prevalent before its creation.
By opening up trade, member states have developed a close relationship. Companies are able to operate in a giant single market. We now all have to agree to shared goals and trade barriers have been transformed. Democratic and free market ideas are flourishing.
Armed hostility has been replaced with the desire to trade freely. Shared legal and policy frameworks means disputes happen less frequently, and where disputes happen, there is more effort to resolve them. At present, European leaders see each on such a regular basis that they now have long records of building agreements, rather than disputing issues.
If we take all this into consideration, it is clear to see that EU provides a useful model for how other states can achieve a lasting peace. We should rejoice in its success. In fact, it has been so efficacious that to so many people war in Europe now seems incomprehensible.
How do we explain this? I understand that the danger of irrelevance, or sounding remote from the hopes and fears, remains a real challenge. This is why those of us who have been unafraid and unapologetic about our support for Britain’s membership need to relate it back to the people. This is why I talk about the EU in the context of jobs and growth for companies and businesses in Swindon, whether they be giants like Honda and BMW or smaller manufacturing or distribution companies. For workers in these businesses, the EU isn’t about the fine detail of the JHA package, but instead is about their ability to trade as effectively as possible so that their livelihoods can be maintained and enhanced.
Aside from the tiny triumph of bringing peace to the continent, the European project has also greatly improved the lives of its citizens. As I mentioned earlier, interstate trade and competition has been encouraged, which has allowed European businesses to flourish. Through removing barriers to goods and services, it has created a vast amount of jobs, created the conditions for more competitive prices, and given citizens access to a wider range of products. In addition, monopolies have been discouraged, there have been huge investments in research and a large amount of services have been developed.
The EU accounts for nearly one third of global economic output. Combined, its GDP is bigger than the United States and nearly twice the size of China.
With the ever growing expansion of the internet and the birth of the new digital age, it will only serve to open up many more possibilities. Common EU trade policy has a huge negotiating power. The Prime Minister has rightly emphasized the need for the Single Market to expand to embrace digital services and capital markets. The EU trade deal with South Korea and the ongoing negotiations with Japan and the United States demonstrate how central the Single Market is in terms of world trade.
The EU, through its legislation and safety procedures has also greatly improved standards and introduced stronger protection for consumers. Producers are no longer able to make excessive health claims. Pesticides residue levels are now protected by law. Every EU citizen now has the same number of working hours and days, the same workplace safety conditions and the same rights and protection against discrimination.
The EU has increased rights to returns and refunds, made sure there are fair and transparent contracts and made manufacturers liable for harm or loss due to defective products.
When it comes to the environment, the EU has provided a unified approach to tackling the problem of air and water pollution, it has created legislation on the disposal of water, the management of chemicals and the creation and use of renewable energy and helped improve the protection for wildlife. Not only has this led to the EU outperforming almost all of the rest of the developed world on pollution, I believe that together, we can promote a sustainable approach on a global scale, which will encourage more and more nations and people to adopting our approach.
I could go on highlighting the accomplishments of the EU, but I do want to spend some time addressing one of the most prevalent myths about the EU, namely that the EU is the birthplace of burdensome laws and regulations, designed to impose chaos on us unfortunate subjects and threaten our way of life. Whilst the Commission is able to initiate legislative proposals, the power to enact them lies elsewhere. Whether New EU laws will or will not be enacted is a decision taken by a combination of the directly Elected European Parliament and the Council of the EU, which consists of government ministers from the elected Governments of the member states. There is no independent functioning community of lawmakers in Brussels.
It needs to be made clear that voters do have direct representation through their Members of European Parliament. Furthermore, almost anyone can challenge the legitimacy of EU laws by taking the case to the Court of Justice of the EU, which in its recent judgements relating to benefit entitlements has shown a marked preference for adopting British legal arguments and valuing the contribution of British lawyers.
So, with all these benefits, why would anyone consider leaving the Union? As I have stated, the EU is not perfect and I wholeheartedly agree with the Prime Minister – we do need reforms, but, like him, I have every confidence that we will achieve an agreement that works for Britain and works for our European partners. As we have seen in the aftermath of Paris, there have already been a clamour of calls to curb borderless travel. Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, and even Sweden have already implemented controls. It follows a pattern in history that in times of crisis, people are willing to drastically change their opinions. The idea of freedom of movement has now changed radically, and this will surely lead to further reform. We can lead the way to ensure we get what we want in Europe, so that we and the rest of Europe can reap the benefits.
I warmly welcome the coming referendum, and believe that we will win, and win big, if we successfully make a positive case for membership in this world of interdependence and challenge the lack of clarity that lies at the heart of the out campaign.
If we take the long view, and hold our nerve, then the UK will remain a key player in European and world affairs. Taking the long view is not merely good politics, but it is good government and is good for all of us.