Staying in carries as much risk as leaving – that’s why we need an EU referendum

by Jonathan Roberts

“There is no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty,” said the white paper of 1971 that began our entry into the European Economic Community.

It was the start of a debate on the future of the UK and its place in the modern world, but one that paid little attention to what part of our sovereignty should be defined as ‘essential’.

“In the modern world, no country can go it alone,” read the government pamphlet issued during the referendum of 1975. Amidst rising unemployment and persistent recession, joining a free trade agreement with our closest trading partners was seen as a welcome opportunity to turn the economy around.  We needed jobs and prosperity in a rapidly changing world, and the Common Market was sure to deliver it.  This, twinned with assurances on national sovereignty, was the argument that persuaded the electorate to ratify the UK’s entry 2 years earlier.

And in many ways, it worked.  When international trade forms such a fundamental part of UK GDP, easy access to a market of 500 million people has immense value.  Within a few years of the Common Market coming into force, airlines, as an example, had increased their flights to European destinations by 60%, and new opportunities for trade, business and tourism flourished.  The freedom of movement, in many ways a libertarian principle, was matched by new protections for working people that prevented exploitation at home and abroad.

But as an electorate, our agreement to join the Community was on the condition of protection of sovereignty and the preservation of democracy.  And it is here that, as the EEC became the European Union, the ‘project’ started its road to democratic illegitimacy.

Our ability to protect British sovereignty was then, and continues to be, on the decline.  In 1975 we were told, in the same government pamphlet, that “No important new law can be decided in Brussels without the consent of a British Minister, answerable to a British Government and a British Parliament…the British Minister can veto any proposal for a new law or a new tax.” It provided reassurance to an uneasy electorate. But whilst this claim may have been true at the time, that time was long ago.

By 1990, things had already changed. Lord Denning (who, as a Master of the Rolls, was the second most senior judge in the land) wrote”‘No longer is European law an incoming tide…it is now like a tidal wave bringing down our sea walls and flowing over our fields and houses.”

And our ability to stop those laws, if deemed necessary, was already, by then, getting weaker.  Since 1975, we have signed away veto rights almost every time the European Commission has raised its competency and increased its authority.  Indeed, we are now at a point where Viviane Reding, the Vice-President of the Commission is demanding that “the veto right in the EU Council has to be scrapped.”

We rely heavily, therefore, on either begging for opt-outs, or merely attempting to influence decisions that we cannot prevent from being made. But in itself, our ability to influence the EU, never mind veto its decisions, has declined heavily too.

In 1973, the UK had 2 of 13 Commissioners. It now has 1 out of 27.  We had 36 out of 198 MEPs.  We now have 73 of 754.  We had 10 of 58 votes in the European Council.  We now have 29 out of 345.

The reduction in relative-representation and influence is the result of persistent enlargement and the pursuit of ‘ever closer union’.  From 13 original members we now have 27, and with Croatia, Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkey awaiting entry, that influence will decrease further still.

We can, of course, elect MEPs to represent us in the European Parliament.  But this is a Parliament whose President – a member of the same grouping as Labour – has made efforts to introduce secret voting.  His failure to introduce the measure provides little comfort – the fact that it even occurred to him is warning enough of senior EU politician’s attitude to democratic accountability.

Just what, exactly, is “Labour” about defending all this? What part of our history or values makes us think this is OK?  Just what about supporting an organisation that we pay for, but whose accounts have not been signed off for 20 years, is ‘in Britain’s national interest?’

The argument that the European Union has done some good in a number of areas is sound and strong.  But it is also irrelevent when it is used in the debate to decide whether or not to hold a referendum.  The public were sold the European Union on a promise that was incorrect.  Or, as Roy Hattersley put it, “Ministers did not lie, but they avoided telling the truth” about how much sovereignty would be lost to the European project.

This has been the true failure of the UK’s participation in Europe.  The public’s attitude towards Europe was not poisoned by the right-wing press, it was poisoned by politicians who said one thing and did the other.  It led directly to the rampant authoritarianism of today’s inexperienced professional politicians who, with barely a day’s work in the real world between them, think that they know best.

I am not instinctively eurosceptic.  My first elected position in the Labour Party was on the national executive of the Labour Movement for Europe, and I believe in the concept of free trade agreements and international cooperation on joint issues of strategic interest.  I was pro-European because I believe, and still believe, profoundly in what was on offer in 1975.  But I have been made increasingly eurosceptic because of what we have got today.  An unaccountable, arrogant, European political class who we never meet, and who never want to meet us, much less listen to what we have to say.

The UK and Europe are on different paths.  Some UK politicians have claimed that ‘reform not exit’ is the best strategy.  But that reform never comes.  The European Union has almost been designed to prevent it.  And every time a politician promises to reform the European Union, nothing happens – and trust is eroded further still.

All we get is “ever closer union.”

An exit would not cause the uncertainty some are claiming.  Businesses have faced uncertainty every single day we have not been truly signed up to the project.  At least with a referendum, an end to that uncertainty will be in sight.  Indeed, the Indian finance minister said recently “our relationship with the UK will only get stronger whether you are in the European Union or not” – the old mantra that we “can’t go it alone” does not necessarily ring true.

It is not helped by the appalling arguments made by pro-Europeans.  How many times have we heard that, if we leave the EU, 3 million jobs would be lost?  It is an outrageous and disingenuous piece of scaremongering, that relies purely on the hope that the public are as ignorant as many political strategists hope.  No country, large or small, near or far, would stop trading with the 8th biggest economy in the world simply because it is no longer in the EU.

If there are legitimate reasons to stay in the European Union – and I’m sure there are – let them be made honestly, through appropriate means.  With the public.  In a referendum.

But to my mind the European Union left us a long time ago with its persistent demands for what former European Commission President Jacques Delors called ‘one true European Government’. It was never what we wanted, nor what we signed up for.  The global recession is slowly being exploited by ideologues who demand that relentless ‘ever closer union’.  Staying within the EU whilst such a Federal Government slowly creeps into existence, where secret votes are campaigned for, vetoes eroded and scrapped, and new competences claimed at every opportunity, is every bit as much of a risk to our future as leaving the EU behind.

The European Union is just too different to what we voted for in 1975.  I don’t care whether my desire for a referendum makes me sound Labour, Conservative, Liberal, or even a little-Englander.   I am a British citizen and I want my Parliament to be sovereign. ‘The national interest’ is defined by what we, as a society, deem to be in our interest.  And the only way to ascertain what that means is to have the people decide.

Jonathan Roberts was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Thirsk and Malton at the last election

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9 Responses to “Staying in carries as much risk as leaving – that’s why we need an EU referendum”

  1. Nick says:

    And lo and behold, all the same problems exist in Westminster.

  2. Julian says:

    At a UK general election, the parties present to the electorate a programme of measures they would like to introduce, and the voters decide which one they prefer. When were the electorate ever presented with a choice between different programmes for government in an EU election? When was it ever possible to change the EU’s political aims in an election?

  3. Alex says:

    By far the best article I’ve read on this subject.

  4. Jon says:

    There are numerous errors in this article (such as the claim that there 13 original members of the EC) that undermine the credibility of Jonathan Roberts’ whole case. However, let me make one or two points.

    Pro-Europeans have never said that if “we leave the EU, 3 million jobs would be lost”. Research by NIESR showed that 3 million UK jobs are linked to our membership of the EU. To pretend that there would be no risk to ANY of these jobs if we left really would be disingenuous, but don’t try and claim something that is never said.

    His argument seems to be based on a 1970s vision of British sovereignty. Well I am afraid to if he thinks that we should have a referendum because the world has moved one since 1975 then he is living in cloud cuckoo land. Whether we remain members of the European Union or not, we now live in a inter-connected world that has no respect for national boundaries. Our status as a member of the EU gives the UK influence far beyond what we would ever achieve on our own.

  5. Jonathan Roberts says:

    Jon (Worth?), you have misrepresented the NIESR report by saying it said 3 million jobs are linked to our membership. It said “detailed estimates from input-output tables suggest that up to 3.2 million UK jobs are now associated directly with exports of goods and services to other EU countries.” There is no implication that trade would end outside the EU.

    The same report also says “there is no a priori reason to suppose that many of these [jobs], if any, would be lost permanently if Britain were to leave the EU.”

    My argument is one based on democratic legitimacy of our membership. Our membership of the EU as it is today, in my view, requires public consent given how much more power it now has compared to 1975. But you chose to distort my argument, which is unfortunate. What do you have to fear?

  6. bob says:

    We need to kill this parasite called the EU and have a free trade only area, not the quasi dictatorship of a supra national government.

  7. Dave says:

    As the EEC has evolved in the 38 years since 1975 so has the UK. In some respects Labour’s position on Europe is similar to that on the Union. We support it in principle, but believe it needs to reform and evolve if it is to survive. Moreover we have grave concerns about the consequences of a ‘race to the bottom’ without common rules where big capital can play off each jurisdiction against the other.

    In respect of Scotland the argument is fundamentally about the consequences of dismantling a political and transfer union. In the Euro Area the debate among those who are committed to doing ‘whatever it takes’ to maintain the single currency area is over consequences of setting up such a union. This is primarily a matter for them, but it makes a great deal of sense to ask how the UK (which will never conceivably join any Euro currency; because, like Denmark, we have our opt-out and a clear referendum lock) and the other Euro ‘outs’ would fit into such a structure, or would wish to associate with it?

    The European elites grind exceedingly slow and scarily few of them seem to have any great grasp of economics, but once consensus on a goal is achieved incremental progress toward it tends to be irreversible. Both the Single Market and the Euro are examples. Britain’s essential problem is that we mostly want to be part of one, but not the other. Sure the redtops rail against prohibitions on imperial measurements and other absurdities, but we are by and large happy to accept rules negotiated between all members using QMV. Mrs Thatcher could go along with it as a price worth paying for free movement of people, goods and services across the, then 16, soon to be 28, members. So can the vast majority of us. On the Euro the jury is still out as to whether it can evolve into a more formal transfer union, or smash apart on the rocks of the bond markets? EU expansion has also long been an article of faith, and from 1989 onward has and still is fundamentally challenged and changed the balance of power and interests within the EU (and the Brussels elite) itself.

    It may be possible to come up with a ‘multi-speed’ model under which the Euro core can pool fiscal soverignty while a looser outer ring pursues a ‘pick & mix’ policy. it would represent a fundamental change to the ‘acquis’ principle, so it will be hard for Brussels to accept; but even although involving a dimunution of influence over the ‘core’ fledgling Euro state members, it would be superior to the present EFTA alternative where single market rules are decided in Brussels and we have to adopt them or have our exports barred from almost all of the continent, & Eire. The best thing might be to reconstitute the Parliament (which has always been an institution in search of a function) as a Eurozone institution. The Eurozone will need a democratic body in order to underpin the transfer union which it needs. It is not necessary, or helpful, to a glorified free movement area to have a toytown parliament complicating things.

    2017 seems an arbitrary deadline as the Eurozone crisis seems unlikely to resolve itself in the near future, but if it helps concentrate minds in Berlin, Brussels and other capitals, then perhaps it might come to something worth considering. It does little harm to try, because the status quo is unacceptable to both the UK and the Eurozone. The Eurozone needs to become more like a proper country. The UK cannot join in. The other ‘outs’ share many of our concerns and are keen that a way be found for us to stay in somehow. Ultimately the British people must have another say; and will not be forever denied it.

  8. Renie Anjeh says:

    I have huge respect for Jonathan Roberts and some of what he has to say, even though I disagree but this is something that I would expect from Liam Fox or a Tory rebel. Three million British jobs depends on our trade with the EU. If we want to be ahead in the global race, and be an outward-looking industrious country, then we need to be in the EU because the Bric countries and Africa look to us for trade because of our EU membership. Our employment rights such as the working time directive and social chapter. New trade deal with the USA with the EU is on the way. To leave the EU and have a Swiss style relationship, wouldn’t just put all of that in jeopardy but we will STILL be bound to EU rules and regulations, but we will have no seat at the table to influence decision-making at all. It would be a ludicrous decision to get rid of it. Reform does happen, Blair achieved it on occasion, Thatcher did with the rebate and Cameron did over getting our EU budget cut. Miliband needs to do the same, by getting reform not exit. Where I’d agree with Jonathan is in having a referendum, because I want Euroscepticism killed off for good and put the progressive case for Europe to the people.

  9. Renie Anjeh says:

    Also, Jonathan, I doubt we’d actually get ever closer union. We will have a two-speed Europe, with the countries in the euro (minus Greece and some others who I think will leave soon) which will be essential a single European state with fiscal and political union, and countries like ours on the outer ring of countries not in this European country but still in the EU.

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