The starting gun has been fired on a long campaign to determine the future of the UK in the world. There will be a lot of facts, figures, statistics, predictions and assumptions bandied about in the media and within campaign material from both sides. But it is essential to engage with this, as the once in a generation decision that we face on June 23rd will shape our country for decades to come.
For many years, I have been of the view that the UK can do better by ourselves than through continued membership of the European Union. Many people will share my concern about the lack of transparency and accountability of the EU. The fact that the accounts have not been given a clean bill of health by auditors for an incredible 21 years in a row demonstrates that there is no realistic way of following the money and scrutinising how our contributions are spent. Some people say that we contribute £23m per day to the EU, others say £55m. The overall cost or benefit of membership varies hugely depending on the source. Frankly, the fact that there is even a debate where the figures are so far apart suggests that we don’t even know what we are a member of. How can we help to reform an institution that no-one actually understands. Few people actually seemed to have realised that there was no exit mechanism from the EU until the Lisbon Treaty in 2010.
I support breaking down trade barriers which the single market aims to do. However I am concerned in equal measure by the walls that are built around the EU trading bloc instead, placing tariffs on goods coming in from many of our old trading partners outside the EU. The world has moved on since the Common Market came into being. Easier travel and the rise of the Internet has changed the face of world trade, bringing a global market to even many small companies in the developing world. The likes of Google, Starbucks and Amazon show how corporations are far more nimble than the unwieldy directives brought in through 27 member states. The disparate economies of the EU make collective decision-making incredibly difficult. The divide within the Eurozone with ailing economies like Greece and Spain in the south and the sizeable, mature economies in the north such as Germany and France, is extremely wide and means that a unifying economic policy will always create losers. This is why it was so important for the UK that we did not join the Euro. In the main part, our freedom to make our own fiscal and economic policy helped us weather the recession well and come out the other side with the fastest growing economy in the developed world, creating more new jobs than the rest of the EU put together.
The Eurozone countries will need to move at an increased pace towards a single European state. It is only by coming closer in this way that they will be able to meet the challenges that they face in keeping the Euro as a credible cohesive currency. If that is what those countries need to do, then that is fine. The UK should not be pushed into joining them. One of David Cameron’s negotiated positions was to stop us from such a move through a red card system. I want to go further, not just drawing a line in the sand, but returning powers to the UK. It isn’t that long ago when the public were up in arms about the Lisbon Treaty getting railroaded through the ratification process by Gordon Brown. That treaty brought in a permanent EU President and the equivalent of an EU Foreign Secretary. It reduced the majority requirements in the Council of Ministers and brought in greater centralisation.
I am really optimistic that as an independent nation, we can thrive in a global 21st century economy. Yes, there will be challenges. A vote to leave will start both the 2-year process to leave and a series of talks around the world to investigate bilateral trade agreements, especially with countries that are likely to dominate the coming decades, such as India. Remaining within the EU is arguably a bigger risk than leaving. The Eurozone countries will move closer together pushing the UK further to the periphery of what is already a trading bloc that is shrinking in terms of global market share. The EU’s share of global GDP has shrunk by one-fifth in the last twenty years and will continue in that direction. The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, predicted to be behind only China, USA and India by 2030. We are the sixth largest manufacturer in the world, despite the nay-sayers who forget our much-valued precision engineering exports. We need to look further afield with our head held high.
The minor changes to entitlement to in-work benefits will not be enough to bring immigration under control. A four-year ban on claiming benefits has been watered down to a four year wait to claim full benefits, with a sliding scale in between. Similarly the ridiculous situation of UK taxpayers paying for child benefit to be sent to foreign national children abroad, instead of being abolished, has been restricted to an amount equivalent to the local living costs of that child, leading to the complication of a civil servant having to calculate and update 27 separate payment systems for child benefit. The biggest pull factor for migration remains our burgeoning economy, with our successful job creation. Therefore the UK will still remain an attractive option for people, especially if living in the Southern and Eastern European countries where the unemployment percentage is in many cases in double figures. The emergency brake that has been agreed is simply a short term measure which will fail to tackle a long term problem. The brake is also pulled by the EU, not the UK. Imagine having to ask your passenger to pull on the handbrake in an emergency and you will start to see the downside to this.
The only way to stem immigration is to control our own borders. This is not without complication. Our border with France is as a result of a bilateral agreement and so it shouldn’t automatically follow that France would end the pre clearance agreement if we were to leave the EU. Similar arrangements are in place in other parts of the world, such as the US/Canada border, which do not require any relationship beyond the agreement itself. Government policy is rightly to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands. The problem in trying to deliver this is that we have one hand tied behind our back, unable to do much about immigration from within the EU. This leads us to bear down incredibly heavily on immigration from outside the EU. Whereas this may be desirable to many, we simply don’t have any flexibility or choice which leads to a number of unintended consequences and inequitable situations. Curry restaurants are struggling to attract skilled chefs, whereas an unskilled European can come to the UK without question and more importantly, without prospect of a job.
I have heard the case put that our security would be at threat if we voted to leave the European Union. I see this as part of ‘project fear’ which seems to be coming from many in the ‘remain’ camp. NATO has done more to keep us secure than the EU. There are plenty of things that we will still need to co-operate on if we were to return to being an independent nation. Pollution, security, immigration do not stop at the Channel. We can still share intelligence and work on better agreements for extradition and policing. We need to ensure that we agree and share environmental initiatives. None of this joint working requires membership of the unaccountable, bureaucratic, outdated and inward-looking EU. Our response to the closure of steel plants in the UK was hampered by EU State Aid rules. We cannot even stop charging VAT on tampons without seeking the agreement of all 27 member states, leaving women to pay extra for them as ‘luxury items’, the so-called ‘tampon tax’, as a result of cumbersome EU tax rules.
Some people cite the ability to move around Europe not having to change money whilst on holiday and that the EU has reduced roaming charges whilst they are away. We are not and have never been in the Schengen Agreement which allows for open borders but we can still get around freely once we’ve crossed onto the European mainland. That needn’t change with a sensible agreement. We can celebrate the EU for centralising phone charges or go out and get a contract on the Three network where they’ve scrapped roaming charges entirely – testament to the free market and open competition.
There are many models that we can look at when considering how to thrive outside the EU. Norway and Switzerland do pretty well for themselves. Remainers are concerned that those countries are restricted by regulations without power to change. I would contend that our power to change is minimal and that EU regulations restrict us for all our business including trade simply within the UK, unlike those countries. 28.4% of our GDP is from exports, of which 44.6% went to EU countries. That leaves 87.2% of UK sales undertaken here in the UK between British companies and customers or with countries outside the EU. Despite only 13% of our sales being with the EU, regulations are applied to everything. That is not the same as Norway and Switzerland, who happen to be the first and second most prosperous countries in the world. I guess it’s working for them. The deal negotiated by our PM is a useful safety net should we vote to stay in the EU. However it is not finalised. The President of the EU Parliament is on record as saying that it is not legally binding and may not be ratified by the Brussels Parliament, so pro-EU voters will be going in to vote on trust that politicians that they have never heard of and led by a man who sees Britain as a pain to be dealt with, will accept our terms. A vote to remain will mean business as usual for the EU bureaucrats.
This is a complicated issue. There is a risk in leaving. I believe there is a greater risk in staying. The PM’s negotiated settlement is as good as it will get. If we vote to stay, other EU leaders know what they need to offer to keep countries subdued and content with the status quo. Leaving is not about isolating ourselves from the rest of the world. Instead it is grabbing the opportunity to look further afield, to new opportunities with partners that are racing ahead of the old world. I hope that people will take the time to read up on the options but I also hope that they’ll agree with me that with life outside the EU, as a country in control of its own destination, we can look forward to an exciting, prosperous new chapter in our great nation’s future.