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Baldry makes speech to European Union of Women branch

20 March 2017

European Union of Women
20 March 2017

As one of those who was very much involved in the 1975 Referendum campaign when Britain voted overwhelmingly “yes” to joining the European Union, I think it is worth spending just a little while to reflect why it was in the referendum that Britain voted to leave the European Union.

There are, I think, a number of reasons.

Firstly, because the United Kingdom was not a member at the outset of the Common Market, we weren’t in a position to make a contribution towards the way in which the Common Market and subsequently the European Union actually worked, with the division of powers and responsibilities between the European Commission, the Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament.

The founding members of the Common Market had, at different times, all been occupied as a consequence of the Second World War.

In those countries, in post-war Europe, there were understandably mixed feelings about politicians, and hence the check and balance of a Commission run by Civil Servants as guardians of the Treaty of Rome, and subsequent Treaties, and the Council of Ministers representing elected Governments amongst the member states.

This was, and has always been, something of an alien concept to the UK, where Civil Servants are always accountable to elected politicians, and so not surprisingly over the years, elected politicians in the UK found it increasingly rankling being told what to do, as they saw it, by unelected officials in Brussels.

However, forty years of headlines on the basis of the UK being bossed about by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, eventually starts to have an effect.

Secondly, there is no doubt that for many of the countries of Europe, for reasons of history and otherwise, genuinely believe in “ever greater union”, with a single currency, and as is I think now understood by everyone, a single currency increasingly means ever closer harmonisation of fiscal and economic policies.

However, I think it has been clear now for decades, ever since the UK opted out of the Euro at the time of the Treaty of Maastricht, that Britain was not up for “ever greater union”. Britain was never going to join the Euro and to that extent was going to be different from the other EU member states.

I think when history comes to be written, historians will observe that the outcome of the referendum may have been very different if Angela Merkel and other heads of Government had the imagination to enable the UK, under David Cameron’s Premiership, to have a somewhat, admittedly an acknowledged, semi-detached position from the rest of Europe, as the rest of Europe moved to “ever greater union”.

The reality is that Merkel and others said that they wanted Britain to remain a member of the European Union, but were not willing to give David Cameron any, or any meaningful, concessions to make that happen, and indeed, I suspect that history will also show that the time when both Michael Gove and Boris Johnson both decided to campaign for a “leave” result, was when David Cameron returned from the renegotiation talks with the rest of the European Union having made so little effort to understand the UK’s position and so little imagination as to envisage a different sort of relationship for the UK but yet still within the European Union.

Thirdly, there was an inherent conundrum about the arrangements for the Single Market.

You may recall that when we first joint the Common Market, every member state had a veto over any issue which they declared to be in their essential national interest – and as that was a card that countries could play as often as they wanted, in practice if the Commission were proposing something that a member state didn’t like, they simply opposed it as being against their national interest, and exercised their veto.

It soon became clear that there was no way in which one was going to be able to create an effective Single Market if every EU member state simply used their veto to protect what they saw as being inherent national commercial advantage. And so great efforts were made to create a Single Market, with a Single European Act of 1986, and no one was a great advocate for the Single Market than Margaret Thatcher.

However, of course, it meant that we went overnight from a system of Veto to a system of Qualified Majority Voting and everyone’s behaviour changed quite dramatically as a consequence.

When the veto was still in place, of course the President of the Councils of Ministers would lavish great attention on those countries whom he or she thought might veto a particular proposition – if that were the UK, a lot of time, energy and effort was spent on getting Mrs. Thatcher on side.

However, with Qualified Majority Voting, all this changed dramatically, because with QMV, the President of the Council of Ministers, rather than starting with the most truculent, started with those whom he or she felt would support the proposition and work down the list until they were confident of having their qualified majority. And, having done that, they didn’t actually need to spend any or very much time on other member states who might be planning to vote in the minority.

But this of course meant that in a number of instances where the UK had concerns, we found ourselves in a minority and no longer able to exercise a veto where we considered an essential national interest was in some way at stake.

Fourthly, immigration.

One of the principles of the European Union was effectively the free movement of peoples within the Union and this has resulted in millions of UK citizens moving and living elsewhere in Europe, notably in Spain and Portugal. But in recent times, it also led to millions of EU citizens, principally from Poland and Romania, coming and working and living in the UK.

And now we could have a very long discussion devoted just to this topic – and I think there is little dispute that there are numerous sectors of the UK economy which in recent years simply would not have functioned without migrant workers from elsewhere in the EU, including the NHS and our care system, the construction industry, and agriculture.

But at a time when real wages for many have levelled off, and where many have seen a limited improvement in their standard of living in recent years – the “Just About Managing”, as the Prime Minister now describes them – there was clearly a sense amongst many in large parts of the country, including the North and Midlands, that migration from elsewhere in the EU was a contributory factor in keeping down wages.

Also, it did not help that the Referendum campaign took place as against the backdrop of the disintegration of Syria, and almost nightly footage on our television screens, of boatloads of Syrian refugees risking life and all to escape from Syria to Europe in anything they could find that would float.

So the Referendum campaign was fought as against the background of nightly television wallpaper of literally thousands of refugees and asylum seekers seeking to get into Europe and the refugee camps at Calais and elsewhere, have for a long time been powerful testament that, for the vast majority of those refugees coming into Europe, their ultimate destination of choice is the UK.

This particular dynamic of the referendum result has clearly led the Prime Minister to conclude that the UK Government has an obligation not simply to take us out of the European Union, but also to prevent, or seriously contain and control, “free movement of labour”.

However, other EU member states have made it equally clear that they consider “free movement of labour” to be a fundamental, unassailable principle of the Single Market and thus leaving the Prime Minister to conclude that if she wants to control migration into the UK from elsewhere in Europe, the UK has no choice but to leave the Single Market.

You will have noticed that there are a number of commentators who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union, such as Christopher Booker in the Sunday Telegraph, who for as long as I can remember has had a weekly column attacking the EU, is now desperately trying to persuade the Prime Minister of the merits of remaining within the Single Market, but I think one has to be careful of what one wishes for here. If you have campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union, you can’t be surprised if that is exactly what the UK Government then seeks to do.

The fact is that Britain did vote to leave the European Union, and the Prime Minister and the Government are seeking, quite properly, to implement that referendum decision.

With the triggering of Article 50, we are still very much in the foothills of the negotiations. There are bound to be numerous alarms and excursions along the way.

So, for example, on funding the UK would appear to be saying that we are not obliged to pay the rest of the European Union anything on our leaving the EU, and indeed are saying that we think the rest of the European Union owe us £9 billion by way of rebate, whereas M. Barnier, the Commissioner responsible for the UK/EU negotiations, seems to be suggesting the UK will have to agree to stumping up £60 billion before any further talks can take place.

The truth is however, that everyone sensible in Europe, will want to see an amicable outcome with a conclusion that both the UK and the rest of Europe will see as being fair and just.

Whatever the structure, we shall continue to be trading partners, and many EU countries, and head of other EU States recognise that they export considerable more to the UK than we export to them, and making life difficult for us, in trade discussions and structures, would effectively just simply be cutting of their own noses to spite their faces.

Also, Britain, and our European allies – because the will still continue to be our allies, have a whole range of common interests when it comes to defence.

The complexities of Russian and Foreign Policy, Chinese Foreign Policy, cannot be underestimated.

Countries such as Turkey , which used to be resolute and uncomplicated allies, have become much more complex.

Transat antic discussions with the President of the United States and President Trump are more complicated than with his predecessors.

So of course we can leave the European Union but we can’t leave the European Continent and we and all our friends in Europe have a joint and shared interest in finding and establishing a successful modus vivendi that enables us and our European allies to work together effectively on issues of common interest.

The negotiations for Britain to leave the European Union are inevitably going to be complex.

It would be surprising if it were otherwise.

This is one sovereign state, seeking to leave a treaty-based organisation, made up of 27 other sovereign states, but also involves forty years of close involvement of the UK within the European Union.

So it is not surprising that Whitehall advisors are suggesting that Parliament will need to pass at least seven separate Acts of Parliament to prepare Britain for life outside the European Union.

New laws covering immigration, tax, agriculture, trade and Customs regimes, fisheries, data protection, and sanctions – and further Acts of Parliament may be necessary to deal with matters such as EU Migrant benefits, reciprocal health care arrangements, road freight, nuclear safeguards, emissions tradings, and the transfer of spending from various EU funds to individual Government Departments.

What I think is important as we go through the Brexit exercise, is to remember that the people with whom we are negotiating are our friends, our allies, and whether within or outside of the EU, in many parts, our trading partners.

There will inevitably be parts of the UK media and indeed, a number of politicians, who will wish to caricature every move, every bit of negotiation, in the context of either “victory” or “defeat”.

Such rhetoric will not be helpful.

What we are seeking to achieve is a fair, equitable and workable exit from the European Union, that achieves what the UK wishes to achieve to leave the European Union, but to do so in a way which is as positive as possible for us, but as importantly as positive as possible for the remainder of the European Union.

Rt Hon Sir Tony Baldry DL
20 March 2017