I am a pro-European - that is no great revelation, I know. But sometimes you need to say it, clearly and unambiguously.
The isolationist forces in Britain are on the rise - UKIP on the doorstep; Conservative politicians at their conference; familiar headlines in some of our newspapers each placing Britain’s ills firmly at Brussels’ door: too much immigration, too much crime, too much red tape. And every time Europe is back in the spotlight, their hostility towards it – this negative reaction to all things continental – drowns out the other voices in this debate.
Pro-Europeans have to take some responsibility for that. The moderate and rational voices have been too quiet up until now. But we cannot afford that silence anymore. We are no longer asking if Britain will have a referendum on continued membership, we are asking when Britain will have a referendum on continued membership.
The parties differ on the timing. The Conservative party want one in 2017, regardless of what’s happening in Europe at that time: it’s a date chosen for internal party management as much as anything else. The Liberal Democrats believe it will be far better to have the referendum when a serious change to Europe’s rules, affecting the UK, next arises. But we all agree that it will happen at some point or another.
Senior - and usually moderate - voices in the Conservative party have now openly flirted with the idea of leaving; the Mayor of London insisting we should be ready to walk away; the Chancellor issuing threats of exit in German newspapers. That rhetoric has been toned down more recently. I expect they’ve realised that threatening to flounce out of the EU is hardly the best way to appeal to British business.
But the threats certainly haven’t been forgotten in Europe’s capitals. The hardliners have been stoked up. And next May the Euro-elections are bound to become a proxy for the bigger question of ‘in versus out’ – a debate that will play out in the 2015 General Election too.
And all this at the worst possible time. Our economy is finally turning a corner, but the recovery is fragile. We should be focusing on finishing the job and laying the foundations for long-term growth, not entertaining the idea of an EU exit that would throw our recovery away.
Let me be absolutely clear: leaving the EU would be economic suicide. You cannot overstate the damage it would do to British livelihoods and prosperity.
Three million British jobs are linked to the Single Market – three million. As a member we are part of the world’s biggest borderless market place, made up of 500 million people. It’s now the largest economy in the world – ahead of the United States – and it’s where we do around half of all our trade.
Major non-European companies build their factories here precisely because we are a springboard to the EU.
It gives us access to trade agreements with over 50 countries around the world – and we’ve launched negotiations with Japan and the US. The latter alone could bring an extra £10bn to the UK every year. But on our own we’d have to renegotiate all of them – from scratch, and from a position of weakness; government would spend a decade doing nothing else.
The fact is you cannot be for a stronger economy if you are for leaving the EU.
And it’s not just jobs and prosperity. What will happen to our influence in the world if we choose to go it alone? Of course Britain must build up relationships with emerging powers and likeminded nations in other continents. But this idea that we can pull up the anchor, drift away from our neighbourhood - our historical and geographical allies – only to float around in some new network of relationships is a nonsense.
I worked in Europe; I used to negotiate trade deals with the Russians and the Chinese. We simply will not be taken seriously by the Americans, the Chinese, the Indians, all the big superpowers if we’re isolated and irrelevant in our own backyard. We stand tall in Washington, Beijing, Delhi when we stand tall in Brussels, Paris and Berlin.
Two weeks ago I was in Washington. Did they want to discuss US/UK trade? No – they understandably wanted to talk about the big money, the US/EU deal. The Americans value their old friend Britain as a bridge to Europe as much as anything else.
What will happen to our citizens’ safety if we leave? The British police depend on cooperation with their counterparts abroad - sharing information, pooling resources, helping each other bring criminals to justice. Take that away and you are forcing the police to do their job with one hand tied behind their back.
Just last week we heard Rob Wainwright, the British Head of Europol, declare that it would be an ‘unmitigated disaster’ in the fight against organised crime if Britain withdrew from the organisation.
Criminals cross borders – so must we.
What about our environment? Climate change doesn’t stop at Dover. There is no point reducing our carbon footprint unless our neighbours do the same. But together we can set collective targets and work in concert to achieve them – and we have far greater clout in encouraging other countries and regions to do the same.
Every way you look at it – jobs, influence, safety, the environment – the UK is infinitely better off in the EU.
Time to speak up
So I’m not worried about how we make the case for membership to the British people – the argument is ours to win. But I am worried that we’re not out there making it. My great fear, in all of this, is that pro-Europeans are being too slow to wake up to the danger ahead.
The day I dread – the day I hope never comes – is a time when it is all too late: Britain has stumbled out of the EU, and we look back to these days and say we should have done more. It will not be enough to speak up on the eve of a referendum. We need to start challenging some of the ludicrous mythmaking by the isolationists now.
Brussels isn’t perfect by any means. But it’s just not true that it’s some kind of sinister super-bureaucracy - the Commission is smaller than Birmingham City Council. It’s just not true that the Treasury is robbed blind for the privilege of membership – last year our contribution to the EU Budget was around the same as we spend on the NHS every two or three weeks.
It’s just not true that we’re at the mercy of a foreign elite. Britain shapes everything that happens in the EU. Nothing passes into UK law without the input of our MEPs and Government Ministers. Even though there are 28 states in all, we have one in ten of the seats in the Parliament. And in the Council the countries with the most votes and greatest power are France, Germany, Italy and the UK.
So we need to counter the myths. And we need to explain the real reasons Britain belongs in the EU and what is really at stake in this debate. I have made my commitment very clear: the Liberal Democrats will lead the way as the Party of In. But today I am calling on businesses and organisations and individuals to show their support for continued British membership in a reformed EU.
I am not asking you to get involved in the party politics. I’m not asking you to support the Lib Dems. But I am asking you to be part of a coalition for the national interest – standing up for Britain remaining in Europe; for a Britain that is richer, safer, greener and stronger in the world.
I’m calling on every internationalist politician – from any party; every company that buys or sells across the Channel; every umbrella group representing British business interests; the big banks and City firms that depend on the Single Market as well as the small family firms who want to expand; the investors who’ll have to reconsider their operations here if we withdraw from the EU; the research institutes that benefit from pooled EU funding; the British Erasmus students studying abroad; the hundreds of thousands of Brits who’ve relocated to France, Spain, and Greece; the police; the charities who pick up the pieces when men, women and children are trafficked across our borders; the human rights organisations that want to make sure British citizens stay signed up to the protections in EU law; the green groups who want a UK that can lead the way on climate change; the farmers and fisherman who need a level playing field in Europe; the millions of British consumers who get better, cheaper products because we’re a member of the EU; and anyone and everyone who can see that there is strength in numbers in today’s world.
Express your support for staying in the EU however you like: tweet using #whyIamIN, put it on Facebook, post it on our website, write to the Government, write to the newspapers, make your position clear in the conversations you have and the work you do.
Whatever you do, just don’t let the isolationists speak for you or dominate this debate.
And if you are for IN, don’t wait for others to say it; make yourselves heard.
Don't surrender reform
And, if you believe we should stay in Europe, don’t let anybody tell you that you are somehow against change, or anti-reform. Don’t believe this idea that if you see the benefits of membership, you are blind to the EU’s faults.
I was campaigning to make Brussels more open and transparent a decade and a half ago, when I was an MEP for the East Midlands. Last month, at my Party’s Conference, we signed up to a forty page document filled with ideas to make the EU more streamlined, more accountable, more focused on growth; less meddlesome in areas of national life that are none of it’s business, and more effective in the areas where nation states cannot act alone.
And the fact is: Europe is changing, whether we like it or not. The single currency area is healing, but the Eurozone crisis revealed deep economic tensions and they must be resolved. The Eurozone core will need to tighten further: rules governing greater fiscal discipline will be demanded by the strongest Eurozone members and the weaker economies will expect sustained Eurozone support in return.
Britain, by definition, will lie outside of these emerging arrangements. But there will be big implications for the single market as a whole – and we need to make sure that the EU that emerges at the other end continues to serve all of its members.
The Banking Union is a prime example. It’s in everyone’s interests for it to work – including states like the UK who are not part of it. But it is in no one’s interests if the banking union operates in a way that damages the City – Europe’s biggest financial centre. The Coalition Government will now make sure that doesn’t happen.
And next time there is Treaty Change I will certainly advocate new legal safeguards guaranteeing that – whenever a reform might impact on the Single Market – Euro-ins and Euro-outs have an equal say.
So the real question is not who wants to reform Europe and Britain’s relationship with it, it’s who can do that?
Flawed and bound to unravel
I don't believe the Conservative strategy of demanding repatriation with the threat of exit can or will deliver lasting reform. The sceptics have been placated – temporarily – with a promise of a repatriation of powers in the next parliament, ahead of a referendum in 2017.
It is a seductive offer – a grand, unilateral renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU. But this promise is deeply flawed, and bound to unravel. It collapses under the weight of its own internal contradictions.
Just imagine how this will develop. After the next election, a Conservative Government will fly from capital to capital, clocking up air miles demanding a series of UK opt outs and carve outs from other European leaders. There’s been some speculation suggesting there’s a deal to be had with the Germans, ready and waiting. But that misses the point. Of course a future British Government will be able to cobble together a package of reforms with Germany and other member states with likeminded views on European competitiveness and so on. But the question is not can a reform package be negotiated. The question is will it ever be acceptable to the large swathes of the Conservative party who want to be semi-detached from the EU, or out of it altogether?
Let’s be clear: what these people really want is not a change in the wording of treaty here, a directive repatriated there. For many on the right, this whole process is just a smokescreen for exit. Politics masquerading as patriotism. Nothing a Conservative government could bring back will ever be good enough unless it meets that impossible test. The isolationists will latch on to everything that wasn’t achieved. They will say that to accept this deal would be humiliation at the hands of the Germans and the French. They’ll say it’s just Wilson all over again.
And because the Government will have spent two years conducting these negotiations under the threat of exit – saying that if the offer on the table wasn’t good enough, the UK would be forced to leave – don’t be surprised when the sceptics say: ‘it’s not good enough, let’s leave’.
The Government will have armed them with precisely the arguments they need. And then what? What kind of chain reaction will have been set off?
A renegotiation widely deemed a failure; a divided Conservative Party; the sceptics emboldened and off the leash; a referendum fought at the wrong time and on a skewed debate; and a very real possibility of Britain tumbling out of the EU.
The promise of unilateral repatriation was made at a time when the Conservative party needed to find a way to plaster over their internal divisions on Europe. They needed a position that, in the lead up to the election, all sides can get behind – a policy fix. Although, judging from this weekend, it’s not even clear they’ll make it that long.
It’s a short -sighted political calculation that could jeopardise the long-term national interest. It is playing with fire and, if we go down this track, it is Britain that will get burned.
The Coalition’s unsung success
And, most perplexing of all: the unilateral approach is completely at odds with what the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have been doing together in this government. Our partners don’t tend to shout about this, but one of the least noticed Coalition successes is our record of delivering for the British people by engaging constructively with our European partners – much of which David Cameron deserves credit for.
This is the real way to be ambitious for Britain. Yes, there are times you need to put your foot down: that’s why I supported the Prime Minister when last year it looked like Britain might need to exercise our veto to stop a rise in the EU budget. But by working with our allies – the Germans, the Dutch, the Swedes and others – we not only secured a good deal for British taxpayers, we protected the rebate and capped the budget for the next spending period.
For years people said the Common Fisheries Policy was beyond reform. In Britain we have seen our fish stocks depleted and profits diminished, while our fisherman have been tied up in bureaucratic knots.
Yet in January we led the way on a historic agreement that will transform fishing practices across Europe, and end micro-management from Brussels, massively benefiting our fishing industry and our marine environment too.
The Coalition has brought together 13 like-minded countries to take on the Commission over excessive red tape. For example, hundreds of thousands of firms will now be exempt from costly EU accounting rules. We’ve also cracked the previously illusive EU-wide patent – worth up to £20,000 per patent in translation costs alone.
And our experiences only prove what we have seen with every government for the last 60 years: if you want Europe to deliver for Britain, you have to lead. Margaret Thatcher led when she helped pioneer the single market. Tony Blair led when he and Jaqcues Chirac launched EU defence and security cooperation. It was British Lawyers who drafted the European Convention on Human Rights - not to be confused with the EU, as it so often is, but a huge success for European cooperation nonetheless; British police who have driven ground-breaking cooperation on cross-border crime. And – in keeping with this very British tradition – I will always believe that the best way to represent our nation’s interests is to stay and win the argument, showing leadership abroad for your citizens at home.
If you want to know my position, it's very simple: yes to staying in Europe; yes to reforming the EU and improving our relationship with it; yes to a referendum when the time is right.
And that is the approach I will continue to take.
More meaningful, less meddling
And throughout this process we need to get Europe back to what it’s good at: adding value where the global nature of our problems means states have to work together for any real chance of success.
Completing the single market in services and the digital economy; innovating so that our continent keeps up with China, India, Brazil; opening up trade with the rest of the world; dealing with the fragile states on Europe’s borders; promoting human rights and democracy; working together for a greener future; protecting our citizens from the threats that cross our borders.
Where the EU has lost its way, we need to refocus it, so that its contribution to national life is less meddling and more meaningful. Where the EU has become intrusive, it needs to be pushed back.
I welcome the announcement by President Barroso last week that the Commission will simplify EU rules to make them lighter and less burdensome. I want to see a much more active role for national parliaments in scrutinising EU decisions and policing the principle of subsidiarity. We're still not fully exploiting the provisions made for this under the Lisbon Treaty.
And it's right that the UK stays opted out of rules that we believe are damaging - like the 48 hour cap on the working week in the Working Time Directive. It's important to point out that we're not ideological about this. Many of the workers' protections that we now take for granted actually originated in the EU. Guaranteeing paid holiday and regular breaks - they're also in the Working Time Directive. So there are good bits too; but we need to get the right balance.
Where arrangements are unfair, they need to be corrected. High up on my list is the Common Agricultural Policy, where we need to end the historical subsidies that distort trade.
And where the institutions are just plain wasteful, of course that needs to end. It’s ludicrous that the European Parliament has an official seat in Strasbourg. The round trip for MEPs travelling from Brussels and back costs £150m a year. It’s high time the Strasbourg seat was scrapped.
And I say all of this as a pro-European – because we are the real reformers now. I say this as someone who wants to change and improve the EU and Britain’s relationship with it precisely because I am ambitious of what can be achieved, because I believe we are at our best when we are open and outward-facing – richer, stronger, safer and greener.
If you believe that, it’s time to say it. Stand up for a proud Britain leading in a better EU. Stand up for staying in Europe, for the sake of the national interest.
I will and I hope you will too.