Britain and Bristol are Stronger In the European Union
This year will see the most important vote that any of us under 60 have cast so far in our lives. We will be deciding whether Britain remains a member of the European Union or leaves it for an uncertain future in an increasingly globalised world.
Back in 1975 when the last referendum on Britain’s membership of the then European Community took place there was an overwhelming consensus among the political, business and media establishment that Britain should stay in the club it had joined only two years previously. Then, as now, the referendum had much to do with the Prime Minister trying to settle differences in his own party. Whereas Harold Wilson had trouble with the minority hard left of the Labour Party, David Cameron now faces a situation where maybe as many as half of his MPs are tempted to argue for a vote to leave. In 1975 there was no UKIP, fewer anti-capitalist and anti-free trade campaigners, no real opposition among the newspapers and no possibility of circulating wild rumours and untruths via blogs and social media. Britain’s continued membership of the club to which it has now belonged for 43 years cannot be taken for granted.
Just as in 1975 while the political parties will run campaigns to turn out their own supporters the key to swinging the undecideds into the “Remain” camp will be cooperation between politicians of all parties, business, the unions and opinion leaders from other fields. In 2016 this umbrella will be provided by ‘Stronger In’, led by the former boss of Marks and Spencer Stuart Rose. Yesterday I went to Exeter for the launch of the Liberal Democrat ‘In’ campaign in the South West, which included a presentation from Stronger In. In my home city of Bristol several of us have come together to form Bristol Stronger In, which will be launched later this month. I am representing the Liberal Democrats and there are representatives from the Labour Party, Green Party, Conservative Party (hedging their local bets at the moment) and there is also interest from business and the TUC. To hear more about how to help Stronger In, and get an invite to your local launch, go to http://www.strongerin.co.uk/
We will all have our own reasons for wanting to remain in the European Union but I think there are five main ones:
Britain’s economy is stronger as part of the world’s largest single market. Our businesses, large and small, benefit from being able to export without tax or regulation obstacles to everywhere from Lisbon to Tallinn, across all of the other 27 member states of the European Union. The EU also bargains on our behalf with the world’s other economies. This is possibly the only area where we have more clout than the USA, the world’s second largest single market. By pooling our sovereignty we enable the EU Trade Commissioner to negotiate the best deal for British businesses and consumers. The EU has over a hundred trade deals with other economies. By remaining in the EU we will continue to benefit from the existing deals and the new ones being negotiated.
The origins of the EU were the desire of French, German and other European leaders to trade in harmony and remove the need for conflict. My father’s father served in the Eighth Army in North Africa in the Second World War. My grandparents’ generation would all have known someone who served in some capacity. Their parents would have experienced the First World War. The fact that neither my father nor me has had to seriously contemplate conflict in Western Europe is the major achievement of the European Union. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the EU has extended east and the Poles, Romanians and Estonians now enjoy peace and greater prosperity. Peace enables prosperity to grow and people that are prosperous will not risk their livelihood with war. The fact that we live in the most peaceful and prosperous part of the world should not be taken for granted.
Britain’s place in the world’s largest single market allows us to work and travel with minimal barriers. It’s a two way advantage, enabling Britons to carve out a career in Paris or Rome, with French and Italian workers bringing their skills to strengthen the British economy. That contribution is right across all sectors from retail to the most advanced manufacturing. Britain and Bristol are world leaders in aerospace. But that competitive advantage depends on French, Spanish and German engineers as well as the Brits who work for the likes of Airbus and Rolls Royce. British universities are also the most numerous among the global top 100, after US institutions. Britain’s place as an innovation powerhouse, inventing the prosperity of the future, depends on freedom of movement for Europe’s brightest and best students and academics to study and research in Oxford, London and Bristol. The freedom to work and learn also applies to travel. We all benefit from visa free travel, with low cost flights to Europe’s leisure and culture attractions, with reduced mobile roaming charges the most recent benefit of EU membership.
In an unsecure world, troubled by crime and terrorism, working with our closest neighbours increases our safety. Criminals do not respect national borders but the common European arrest warrant makes sure they have nowhere to hide. Conflict beyond Europe’s frontiers has potential to impact on all of us. Dealing in a humane and fair way with refugees will require cooperation across Europe, much easier to achieve from within the EU. Britain’s membership of both the EU and NATO makes us more secure. Those who would have us leave the EU often falsely attribute our security solely to NATO but overlook the fact that it requires a greater surrender of national sovereignty than anything contemplated by the EU.
Creating a cleaner, low carbon future will depend on Europe working together, not pulling apart. Cooperation on energy is more likely to lead to reduced dependence on polluting fossil fuels. Everything from common standards in food quality and animal welfare depends on agreement within the single market. Europe’s high standards are a model for the rest of the world and can be protected and advanced in trade agreements.
Whatever your preferred reason for remaining in the European Union, one thing is certain. The future of humanity depends on nation states working together to solve common problems and make us safer and richer. Global health problems are best tackled by the World Health Organisation. Our defence and security is more certain through both NATO and the UN. The European Union is arguably the world’s most successful international club. Most of the remaining European nations not in the EU are in the queue to join. A British exit at this point in our history would be seen as an act of madness by our fellow Europeans. Britain’s future lies inside our common European home. We are Stronger In.