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We are here this morning to debate Britain and Europe in 2020.
This issue is fundamental to our future for this election is not only about the deficit and public services – it is also about Britain’s place in the world and our sense of ourselves.
This debate is being fought out by those arguing on the one hand for Britain to remain in the EU seeing membership as vital to Britain’s interests in an interconnected world and those on the other seeking withdrawal from the EU in order to achieve, as they see it, sovereignty and control.
I want to begin today by looking at some of the roots of public discontent in our politics. Those of us who want Britain to stay in the EU must understand the sense of loss felt in some parts of the country about the changes brought about by globalisation.
This does not mean we should be seduced by the false promise of a rewind button to a Britain and a world that isn’t coming back – and in any case was not as great as those who yearn for it believe – but it does mean making an effort to understand the sense of disaffection that exists.
In my Black Country constituency, the present generation has, in recent decades, seen workplace after workplace close. Iconic names employing thousands on one site – gone – often leaving derelict unused sites lying fallow for years. And that didn’t just happen in the Black Country. It happened in many parts of the UK. And this is not just about the loss of jobs. It is also about the loss of pride and identity. About people’s sense of who they are. If you are no longer sure what your city does for a living or what the future holds, of course that impacts on how you view the world.
Eurosceptics have tried to give voice to this sense of loss but the answer is not the politics of anger. That doesn’t lead anywhere. It doesn’t create a single job. It doesn’t shape the future. The answer must instead be the politics of opportunity. A chance not a grievance. But looking back, that is not always the reality of what happened in response to sometimes dislocating economic change.
Ask ourselves, did educational expectations and policies always change as fast as the economic realities demanded? Did we do enough to make sure that every person, no matter what their background, no matter whether or not there was a strong educational tradition in their family had the opportunity to make the most of their lives? I don’t believe we did. And if we want to understand our European debate we have to think about these issues too.
So what should our approach be to Europe if there is a change of Government in two months’ time?
The election of a Labour Government will be the beginning of a different conversation between Britain and the EU. But it will not be an argument for no change.
The Prime Minister cannot set out a clear agenda for reform because he knows whatever agenda he sets out will not satisfy many of his backbenchers. Many of them want any attempt at change to fail. They seek only one outcome and that is exit. Mr Cameron may be on the right politically, but in the past couple of years he has learned the meaning of the Trotskyite transitional demand. His MPs have learned that if they shout loudly enough, he can be pushed. And then, pocketing the concession, they move on to their next demand. That isn’t leadership on Europe. It is the absence of leadership.
For us reform should be about outcomes, not mechanisms. We learned that lesson in the 1990s. We shouldn’t need to relearn it today. When we want better outcomes for example for our NHS or in our labour market, we don’t debate endlessly how Westminster passes its laws. We look at policy, at the outcome we want. The architecture isn’t sacred, but it should not be our starting point.
Europe needs first and foremost to offer hope and jobs to its citizens, especially to its younger citizens. Far too many are out of work. Far too many caught on the wrong side of an insider/outsider labour market. Put bluntly, globalisation has to work for the working and middle class.
So a Labour Government will work with other governments to maximise employment in Europe and offer hope to its young people.
And alongside jobs there have to be decent rights. There are those who believe the creation of jobs is incompatible with decent employment rights. But we have never believed that. In Government we extended paid leave, enhanced maternity leave and pay, brought in access to free childcare to help working parents and of course introduced the minimum wage.
It is right now that we build on those things but we have always understood that the single market must operate in a way that ensures good standards and dignity at work. And we reject utterly the case for withdrawal so that there can be a bonfire of hard won rights at work.
The new European Commission has said it will concentrate on the things it genuinely needs to do, forsaking those it does not. We must hold them to it. The European Council which represents the elected governments must be assertive about the focus of common action and the voice of national Parliaments should be heard more. As Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans reminded us when speaking in London last week, why should European law making always have to be a ratchet? Why not look at the stock of what’s there as well as new measures and ask if it does the job intended? And if it doesn’t why do we need it?
Then of course there is the issue of free movement. Let us be clear. People, money and ideas move around the world much more than they used to. This offers us talent, energy and creativity. But it has also created unease as any politician who knocks doors and discusses this with the public will know.
We have to ensure that the system works fairly in terms of our taxpayers and in terms of public services and we have produced proposals to ensure this is the case. We have also called for a proportion of the EU budget to support the consequences of free movement where there are local pressures. This is not just a British issues but an issue for a number of countries. It does not mean we have to pull out of the EU with all the economic and political damage that would cause. But it does mean we have to have a sensible and positive discussion with other member states about how we ensure this system works fairly and properly for all.
We need to pursue vigorously the agenda that has been set out in terms of energy, the digital economy and services. The single market is far from complete. Britain can claim parentage of this concept. It is time our child came of age and further progress was made.
If those points represent elements of an agenda for reform, there is one further thing we must ensure and that is the right relationship between the countries of the Eurozone and those outside it. Britain is unlikely to join the Euro in the near future. We must have a union of 28 first class citizens, not a union of 19 first class citizens in the Euro and 9 second class citizens. The institutional arrangements for the future of the EU must allow for full and proper participation for all member states, whether inside the Euro or not. This is vital in terms of fairness to all member states and very much in the UK’s interests.
The case for staying in
But what about the core argument on Britain’s future, in or out. Eurosceptics have elided fears about immigration almost entirely with membership of the EU. Thy have pushed the Prime Minister into offering a referendum and even stopped him from saying he will vote to stay in. And they have avoided any serious examination of what the future they want might look like.
The main argument advanced by those who favour Brexit is that it would confer control, mainly over immigration but also over regulation. But looking at those countries who are outside the EU but who want access to the single market a very different picture emerges.
Just a couple of weeks ago the Norwegian Minister Vidar Helgeson came to London to warn us that Norway has to pay a substantial sum to have access to the single market, that it has to obey almost all of its rules, and that it has to accept free movement of people in the same way as any other Schengen member. In the end, for Britain to go down this road would not be to embrace sovereignty. It would simply mean walking away from the top table where the rules are decided, yet still being subject to most of them. How would such a future be of benefit to us?
And if those who want to see us out argue for a more distant relationship, not part of the single market, then that raises the prospect of tariffs and other conditions on our exporters.
It is incumbent on those who want to take us out to spell out exactly what this will mean for British jobs, British exporters and inward investment, and of course British influence.
The EU is still our largest export market. It is still a critical reason for other countries either inside or outside the EU to invest here, as a gateway to Europe. As a non Euro member we have the advantage of our own currency yet full access to the single market. It would be an unforgiveable folly to put this economic position in jeopardy when the control the advocates of Brexit speak of is likely to be illusory.
But there is another area where events are leaving this British debate behind and that is security. It is perhaps ironic that a series of institutions born out of the ashes of World War II should for Britain to have seemed for most of its membership as a transactional relationship, rooted more in trade and economics than deeper values.
Yet this is about values. Being part of the EU requires a commitment to peace, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for borders. For all the EU’s flaws, the commitment to these values has helped keep the peace in Europe for 70 years. We must not forget the significance of this achievement.
The European Union has stood together to agree sanctions against Russia in response to its proxy war in Ukraine. It also stood together in defence of free speech and religious co-existence following the appalling murders at Charlie Hebdo.
The security dimension of the EU is becoming much more important than before. This is not about having a European army – we neither need nor want that – but it is about working together to defend our common values.
The hard edge of our collective security will continue to be provided by NATO, but soft power and hard power are not opposites. We require both. While Eurosceptics crave the breaking of ties to the EU the security situation demands common action and resolve.
If the EU were to splinter or split, no one would be more pleased than President Putin. It is not an accident that the political forces he admires are those anti EU forces of the populist left and right. Nor is it an accident that the Front Nationale in France has received loans of millions of Euros from a Russian bank. And it is no accident either that Mr Putin has been signalled out for admiration by Mr Farage, as he said “as an operator”.
Russia’s aggression is not confined to Ukraine. EU members which share a border with Russia are living in fear. Transgressions of airspace and other military near misses have risen sharply. The RAF have had to escort Russian bombers from our own airspace in recent weeks. The European Leadership Network recently reported that in 2014 NATO states conducted over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft – three times more than in 2013. Their report concludes “the situation has changed both with regard to the number of relevant incidents, and their gravity.” It is clear what is happening. We are being tested.
Whenever the West has been tested in the past, it has looked to Britain. Today, such is the confusion and incoherence of the British government’s position, some are no longer looking. They doubt our resolve.
As Military chiefs have pointed out, on Ukraine and other towering issues of global security this government has been content to preside over a shrinking of Britain’s role, leaving us a more marginal player on the international stage.
When asked about David Cameron’s irrelevance to the debate about Ukraine, Downing Street’s response was to say: “There’s a general election on. You wouldn’t expect the Prime Minister to spend much time on foreign policy now.”
The changing geopolitical security situation is leaving Euroscepticism behind.
At the very moment when we want Europe to be strong our Prime Minister’s approach has become characterised by posture, pandering and panic in the face of its own backbenchers and UKIP.
Of course our position in the EU is about trade and jobs and inward investment. These issues are crucial to our future and our prosperity.
But the geopolitical situation we face shows us it is about values too. Our debate has become too narrow in its focus. It has to consider the common bonds of democracy, rule of law and respect for borders before we make a move that would weaken us and weaken our neighbours.
It is no small matter to preside over a relegating of Britain’s role. It is hugely important to our interests and our influence on how the world responds to this changing situation.
Britain‘s debate about its future relationship with the EU has almost entirely ignored the issue of our collective security. This is a mistake we can no longer afford. It is utterly incoherent for our Prime Minister to call for tougher European action against President Putin in one breath and then threaten to leave the EU in the next. Security is the unspoken dimension of this European debate. This is no time for democratic nations to consider breaking from their allies.
So the choice facing us at the election and perhaps beyond it is about Britain’s place in the world and our sense of ourselves. It is time those of us who want to maintain Britain’s sense of ourselves as a confident country which wants to help shape the world rather than retreat from it, stepped up our case.