Referendum on the UK’s Membership of the European Union

Statement by Iain Stewart MP

Now that the Prime Minister has concluded his renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership of the European Union and set the date for the referendum, I wish to make a statement about my personal opinion on the issue and my decision on which option I shall choose in the referendum.

Before explaining my thought process and conclusions, I wish first to make clear that the views that I set out in this statement are entirely my own and do not represent the opinions of any other individual or organisation in this referendum debate. I have endeavoured to weigh up for myself the different facts and arguments and form a considered view of what outcome is in the best long-term interests of the United Kingdom.

I urge every other voter in this referendum to do the same. I present my thoughts in this statement to help inform the debate. As this matter is to be settled in a referendum and not by a vote of the House of Commons, my vote carries the same weight as that of any other eligible elector in any part of the country. I hope the reasoning that I set out in this statement is helpful to others in reaching their own decisions, whether or not they reach the same conclusions that I have done.

Deciding whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the EU or should part company is one of biggest strategic questions this country has faced for a generation. It involves a weighing-up of many different considerations: costs and benefits, risks and opportunities. I envy those on both sides of the debate who seem to be 100% certain that their view is correct. It is also imperative for that decision to be made in the best long-term interests of the country; it must not be focussed upon current short-term issues or other political calculations. This is a question that cuts across usual party lines and this must not be a referendum on whether the country likes the Government or believes that the Prime Minister should have adopted a different negotiating strategy. We have a deal on the table and we have to decide if remaining in Europe on these terms is in the country’s best interests; or do we think that potential benefits and risks or leaving are worth it.

This is a once in a generation choice. Whatever decision is made by the country in the referendum, that must be the matter settled; we must then proceed to make the new arrangements work and not subject ourselves to endless uncertainty.

My starting point in this debate is that I want Europe to be an outward-facing Common Market. At the time of the 1975 referendum I was not yet even three years of age, and therefore more concerned about the antics of Paddington Bear and the Mr Men than in the European issue. It is always easier to form a viewpoint with the benefit of hindsight, but had I had a vote in 1975 I would like to think that I would have voted for the UK to remain a member of the EEC. Although I would have had concerns, such as the loss of trade with our commonwealth partners, I believe that these would have been trumped by perceiving the benefits of enhanced trade and co-operation with our nearest neighbours. I want a Common Market; a group of sovereign national states having a forum through which they can trade freely and agree rules governing areas of common interest.

I like our European neighbours and enjoy sharing their cultures. I am moved by Schiller’s Ode to Joy so emotionally and magnificently set to music by Beethoven in his Choral Symphony, which has subsequently become the European anthem.

For me, the high point of our association with the EU was probably the Single European Act in 1986 which liberated trading links. From then on, however, it has been a decline in my view. Successive EU treaties such as Maastricht and Lisbon have pushed ever closer towards economic, monetary and political union. While the UK has secured opt-outs from policies such as the Euro single currency and the Schengen single-border, the direction of travel is clear and the UK is constantly swimming against a tide towards a United States of Europe. The EU has become something far removed from what I wanted and what I suspect a majority of the country thought they were voting for in 1975. The vision of the EU that the Prime Minister set out in his Bloomberg speech a few years ago is very much what I want to see. Sadly, the rest of the EU does not seem prepared to countenance such a vision.

At university in the early 1990s, I remember writing an essay entitled “Why European Monetary Union is Doomed to Fail”. I believe that history has proved me correct in believing the fundamental inconsistencies at the heart of the project would prove to be its undoing. Yet the EU persists in adhering to its fundamental principles and protecting monetary union at all costs, rather than sensibly trying to reform it gradually into a more practical and sustainable arrangement. I find it intolerable that the European political elite are prepared, for example, to tolerate huge youth unemployment levels to preserve the Euro in its current form. Although the immediate risks posed by Greece’s situation have abated, the fundamental weaknesses remain unaddressed. Similarly the Schengen open borders policy, while devised for the noblest of reasons, has proven to be manageable only in benign conditions and unable to withstand the harsh realities of global geopolitics.

Although the UK remains outside these two policies, the question is whether it is in our long-term interests to remain part of a Union whose ultimate destination remains in this direction? Can we achieve a settlement that allows us to remain part of the club and benefit from the arrangements which have proven to be successful, while at the same time standing aside from and being insulated from the damaging aspects?

That is the nub of what the Prime Minister has been attempting to negotiate. While I believe the deal he has struck is a notable improvement from the status quo, it falls far short of the “Common Market” association that I want to see, and from which I believe the rest of Europe would also benefit. That there is even a question mark about the deal being subject to a vote of MEPs and potentially subject to revision by future Treaty changes demonstrates that the fundamental supremacy of European laws and institutions will remain in force. How I wish that the EU as a whole had taken this opportunity to reform itself into a much better and effective club, one that is more engaged with the wishes and concerns of its citizens.

The regrettable fact, however, is that it did not take this chance. We have reports that some others in Europe are now belatedly trying to secure for themselves some of the changes being demanded by the Prime Minister but too many – like President Hollande – remain utterly wedded to the process of Union. During the discussion on the UK’s demands this week, it was instructive to note the demands made by Belgium and others that this should be the end of the UK’s attempts to steer Europe in a different direction and to secure special opt outs. For me to be convinced that the EU is willing to reform itself in a way which I believe is both beneficial and desirable to secure the EU’s long-term future, this renegotiation should be the start of the process not its conclusion.

It is tempting now to engage in a discourse about the counterfactuals about a different negotiating strategy by the UK and a different response from the EU. For the record, although I initially had some optimism that a significant recasting of the European project was achievable, it is now clear that the Euro-elite was never going to tolerate more than what is now on offer. However, such academic questions cannot distract us from the decision now at hand; namely, is the deal on the table, which is better than our current position but which falls short of the ideal, good enough to justify our continued membership of the EU? However imperfect our membership of the EU club might be, do the potential costs and risks of withdrawal outweigh it?

Although there are concerns and practicalities which should give us pause for thought, my conclusion is that they are surmountable and that is in the long-term interests of this country to make our break from an organisation that still wishes to head in a fundamentally different direction from what I believe the majority of people in this country wish.

The challenge often made to those advocating “Brexit” is: what would be our relationship with the EU be after leaving? Would it, for example, emulate the relationship that Norway has with the EU? Or Switzerland’s? Or Canada’s? Many column inches have been devoted to exploring the pros and cons of each of these arrangements.

For me, however, such debate misses the point. We are different to any of these countries. We are the fifth largest economy in the world. We are a member of the G7. We have permanent seat at the UN Security Council, a key member of NATO and project soft power across the globe. We have historic influence and trading links with the Commonwealth and a special relationship with the United States. The idea that we are suddenly going to pull up the drawbridge and isolate ourselves, or be cast adrift as an international pariah is nonsensical. We are a global player and can thrive, not just survive, outside the EU.

We would be good neighbours with Europe and will co-operate with them, whether that be on economic or security matters. They sell more goods to us than we do to them. Of course, they are going to want to be on good trading terms. Similarly, on security issues are they seriously going to compromise their own safety by refusing to co-operate with us?

Economic and security links, of course, extend far beyond the borders of Europe. Does Britain need to be part of the EU to punch above our weight on the global stage? I simply do not believe that EU membership is a precondition to us having a significant influence in the world. What is to stop us joining forces with the EU on an issue where it is in our mutual interests to do so? In global realpolitik we have significant clout as a sovereign independent nation and, arguably, being separate from the monolithic EU bloc, which at times will have different objectives and priorities, may give us a valuable nimbleness in international negotiations.

The main determinant of our future economic performance is not our membership of the EU but the extent to which we continue to follow globally competitive policies. A significant and indicative event for me was Nissan’s decision last year to make a decade-long enormous investment in its Sunderland car plant; a commitment to modernise the plant and retain it as one of its key global plants irrespective of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Arguably, our ability to strike bilateral trade deals across the globe, freed from some of the cumbersome restraints of the EU, enhances our ability to take advantage of the global economy.

For many, immigration is an important factor in the European debate. For me, it is an issue that goes far beyond our membership of the EU and, although it has a bearing on this debate, it is not one that would be resolved simply by the UK leaving the EU. We will have emigration and immigration issues whether inside or outside the EU. The modern global economy will continue to require the movement of labour around the world for all sorts of reasons. In sensible numbers, migration enhances economic efficiency and is socially and culturally enriching.

Immigration is also driven by domestic deficiencies. If we in the United Kingdom believe that immigration levels are too high, the basic answer is to effect long-term changes to our education, training and welfare policies so that we produce sufficient numbers of appropriately skilled workers to meet domestic demand. One of the reasons we have seen high levels of immigration in recent years is that our economy has been strong and that we have an insufficient number of indigenous people with either the skills or willingness to fill the vacancies. The power to change that lies in our own hands, although by definition the policy changes necessary will take some time to produce results.

That is not to say that there are no problems with the current free movement of labour principle within the EU. The large movements of people to Europe from the Middle East and Africa – a mix of genuine refugees, economic migrants and (sadly likely) terrorists using a cover – is placing the system under enormous strain. Across Europe, we are seeing the beginnings of a revolt against the Schengen open border system. The UK, although outside the system, is not immune. If the refugees and migrants are granted full citizenship in the European country they settle, under the current free movement rules they become eligible to move the UK or any other country. It is the sheer scale of the numbers involved that threatens the whole system.

Migration works when it is a comparatively balanced system, and the indigenous residents of the receptor country feel that the infrastructure, public services and cultural life are able to absorb the new arrivals. As I have said, history has shown that can be an immensely beneficial and enriching experience.

But when the numbers become too large, the system can come under intolerable strain. This is not to blame the refugees or migrants. Which human can criticise another for wanting to move themselves and their family to a safer, more prosperous area in order to work hard and better their lives? But when a populace feels that its established order is threatened and that it is not in ultimate control of who enters or leaves the country, there is a risk of disconnect between the public and their governments and, at the extremes, a rise of racism, xenophobia and other unpleasant intolerances.

This is the growing challenge that Europe has to face. Can the EU as it is currently structured manage it? If not, is there an appetite to make the system more effective? And should the UK remain part of it to effect such a change?

My conclusion is that we must have a greater national control over the numbers of people who want to come to this country, and the conditions under which they are allowed to come. For the avoidance of any doubt, let me repeat that this is not because I want the UK to pull up the drawbridge. We have been a nation of immigrants and emigrants throughout our history. I want the UK to remain an outward-facing, liberal country positively engaged in the affairs of the world. But the stability of that position also requires us ultimately to have the final control of our borders.

I have not seen any substantial appetite for such reform in the EU. We have been told repeatedly that the principle of free movement of people within the borders of the EU is sacrosanct. The unwillingness sensibly and proactively to reform this system is, I believe, a missed opportunity for the EU to address the fundamental challenges it faces.

Should the UK stay a member and fight for such changes? In my heart of hearts, I just do not believe that there is an appetite amongst the Euro-elites for the scale of changes that I believe are necessary. Certainly, we could stay and fight for incremental and beneficial changes but I fear that we would constantly be swimming against a strong current towards further integration. I need more than that for me to believe that we should remain a member of the EU.

I have concluded that the moment has come for us to part company with the EU. I had hoped that we could stay part of a genuinely reformed EU akin to the vision set out by the Prime Minister in his Bloomberg speech, but I believe that the gap between the objectives of the Euro-elite and what I believe is in our national interests is too great. That is why I shall be voting to leave. It is a balanced decision; I am not without my doubts. This, however, is our once in a generation chance to change our relationship and I believe I would regret a decision to continue with the EU in the hope that something better will come along in the future. I do not believe it will.

I hope that what I have written here is helpful in informing the debate the country must now have. I hope it is a civilised debate and one which properly and fully explores and challenges all the arguments. I hope that is free from scaremongering on both sides and that is not a deployment of highly selective and misleading statistics.

Whatever decision is made by the country, I hope that we can respect the result and different conclusions that others will have reached. For me, the referendum will be the end of the matter and I devote my energies into making the settlement – inside or outside the EU – work.