If I were an MP in today’s EU debate

“Mr Speaker, I do not intend to vote for the motion put forward by the right honourable Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). Nor do I intend to support the amendment from the right honourable Member for Brighton Pavilion (Ms Lucas). But I do accept that they have pointed, whether they intended to or not, to a failing which too many of us in this House have shared. For too long, we have allowed the case for European co-operation to go by default. We have allowed too many myths to root themselves in our debate about European co-operation. Those of us who believe in that project risk reaping a whirlwind in years to come: and the very incoherence of the motion before us exposes how much we have allowed to go by default.

“Perhaps the first thing honourable Members on all sides should recognise is this: the United Kingdom cannot, however many ballot papers its authorities may put together calling for any particular proposal on its relationship with the rest of the EU, impose that proposal upon its twenty-six fellow member states. This is not a matter of anti-democratic resistance by Berlin, Paris, Brussels or any other capital: it is simply a fact that this country has signed up to treaties, multilaterally negotiated and individually ratified, which impose obligations. If it wishes to leave, pure and simple, it may do so. It cannot rewrite the rules to suit itself, with major consequences for its neighbours, and then simply present the document for their signature.

“Any referendum question which proposes to guarantee anything more than our continued membership of, or definite departure from, the European Union is thus a fantasy. We might almost as well call a referendum on our preferred approach to devolution in Catalonia. There is no way that France, Germany or anyone else will let us use such a referendum as a means of overriding their own electorates – who, I should add, are very likely to see Conservative Members’ desire for opt-outs and half-way houses as the worst sort of social dumping. It cannot and will not pass. Honourable Members do no favours to their own call for an honest debate by touting such a proposal.

“The second thing honourable Members would do well to recognise is this: Britain’s departure from the European Union would not terminate the EU. However much some Members may wish it away, there will still be an organisation covering most European states, which pools sovereignty for common goals. Mr Speaker, to believe that our own policies will cease to be affected by the organisation including our most important trading partners, our nearest neighbours and our only direct borders is to believe in fairy tales. We might be a larger Norway – even a larger Switzerland – but, outside the EU, that is what we would be.

“This sort of fallacy has produced the absurdity where Britain, in return for not joining in an EU initiative, has to beg to be allowed into the very meetings which decide its fate. I am certainly not calling for British entry to the Eurozone now. But we cannot delude ourselves. The Eurozone crisis endangers our economy as much as anyone else’s. Not being in the euro allowed us the luxury of competitive devaluation in 2009; it may limit the size of our contribution to funding a solution to the crisis today. But if disaster strikes, it will not stop at the white cliffs of Dover; and not being in the Eurozone means we can do less to stop it from striking.

“Do we wish to be in that position in the Single Market, asking Ireland, or Denmark, or Finland, to put our case in the Council of Ministers as the rules are decided: rules which we must then accept as the price of access to that market? That is what Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland do. Many in this place complain of this or that EU regulation as it is: do they believe that the other members of the Union will do a better job of stopping new ones without Britain at the table? We might be exempt from the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy: but, Mr Speaker, does the House honestly believe that these are more important to the British economy than liberalising services – worth 70% of that economy?

“I agree with the Eurosceptics that this is about democracy. It is about co-operative democracy versus impotent separation. It is about the right of this country, sitting at the top table in Brussels, to share in decisions which affect us all – and defending that right from those whose dislike of shared decisions runs so deep that they prefer imposed decisions instead. We have, for far too long, allowed Eurosceptics to capture the language of democracy. Perhaps they believe that, so long as they keep ministers in London rather than in Brussels, it does not matter that they will be waiting by the fax rather than drawing up the text.

“Mr Speaker, if the House wishes to make our relationship with the EU more democratic, it could more profitably put its own affairs in order. Our Parliament is strikingly behind the times in scrutinising its government’s actions in the EU. Where is the campaign to make Ministers more accountable to this House for their decisions in Brussels? Who lobbies for the importation of the Danish, or Finnish, or Austrian models of scrutiny? Does the honourable Member for Bury North not worry that his honourable Friends have no input into their negotiating brief from this House?

“Too many of those who want to leave the EU do not really want to do it on democratic grounds at all. They want separation. They believe – perhaps they want to believe – that we can and should minimise our involvement with our nearest neighbours; they are willing to sacrifice great influence over all EU rules for the sake of meagre insulation from some EU rules. Mr Speaker, it is a very poor bargain for this country to strike.

“Mr Speaker, in return for pooling some sovereignty with our neighbours – and sacrificing some formal control over some decisions – we gain enormously in our practical ability to change the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The European Union requires us to share some formal power, but I can think of few political arrangements which do more to increase this country’s real power over its own destiny – on the economy, on environmental policy, on international trade, on relations with Iran.

“No credible government of this country is likely to support the wilder anti-Europeanism embodied in this motion: as the Foreign Secretary can testify, the most hardened Eurosceptic tends to make the most surprising accommodation to reality on entering office. The referendum questions are the definition of a false choice. They would do nothing to settle the divisions in Britain on this issue; they are no substitute for representative democracy doing its work. They are based on an entirely false set of assumptions about what Britain can and cannot demand; their purchase comes from an entirely false set of assumptions about the nature of our EU membership. That such a thin set of proposals can be seen as serious proposals shows how many myths pro-Europeans have left to fester.

“I believe it is time for pro-Europeans to nail their colours to the mast. I accept we have failed to make the case for Europe to many of our fellow citizens. But we cannot start to do that on the basis of a false set of choices. Nor can we do it by passing the buck to a referendum and relying on the natural tendency of referendums to favour the status quo. This is our job: I hope the House will reject the motion and then start doing it.”

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