The future of Britain – are the European Union plans for Britain the best way forward?

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster (source Carlesmari)

Based on a speech by Richard Laming in a debate with Rt Hon John Redwood MP organised by UKIP, Wokingham, 23 March 2006

I would like to start by thanking the organisers for the invitation to come and speak in this debate this evening. Of course, I disagree with the policies and ideas of the UK Independence Party but I think it does an important job in raising the issues of EU membership.

Something that worries me and others on the pro-European side of the debate is the fear of the sullen bureaucratisation of the European process. That more and more decisions end up being taken in Brussels behind closed doors by diplomats and civil servants without proper public scrutiny and input. That’s not a good way to take decisions, and it’s not good for the future of EU either. It’s important to raise a debate about what goes on in the EU so that it can be better understood and changed for the better.

My point is that there is nothing inevitable or inexorable about the future of the EU. It was created as the act of a conscious political choice, and its future depends on those same political choices. It’s not inevitable or pre-ordained: at each stage it’s a political choice. That’s why I opened my remarks by commending the role played by UKIP. It raises one such political choice, which provides the contrast for the pro-European political choice that I am going to outline this evening.

Turning to the title of this evening’s debate, “The future of Britain – are the European Union plans for Britain the best way forward?”, there are two ways of approaching it. The first would be to deny that the EU has plans for Britain in the way implied by the question, and the second would be to say that those plans are the right ones for Britain.

It is probably not good debating tactics to use two contradictory arguments in the same speech, but I am well aware that I am speaking to an audience of members of UKIP so trying to win the debate is probably out of the question. I think I would rather leave you with some food for thought, rather than simply aiming to count the votes at the end of the evening.

So, first of all, let me explain why thinking in terms of EU plans for Britain is not a useful way of thinking about the European Union.

The assumption that underlines this way of thinking is that there is some kind of over-arching scheme into which the UK is required to fit, whether or not the UK actually fits very neatly. The problem with this assumption is that there is no over-arching scheme of European integration, where everything in Brussels grows in importance over time. It just isn’t true. Here are three illustrations.

First, we are often told that the European Court of Justice is a political court, interpreting the treaties and always ruling in favour of the European level and against the member states. It doesn’t really look at the law; it just looks for ways to increase the power of the EU. Well, in the ruling on the case of whether the member states were entitled to be represented in the World Trade Organisation alongside the European Commission, the court ruled in favour of the member states and against the Commission. That’s not the sign of a political court, that’s the sign of a judicial ruling on the basis of the treaties, as it should be.

Secondly, let’s look at the EU budget. Again, there are complaints that control of public spending is steadily moving to Brussels, hollowing out the role for national governments in this area. Let’s look at the facts. In the latest budget deal, agreed last December for the next seven year period, the Commission wanted a budget of 1.24 per cent of GDP, but the European Council in the end agreed that the budget will be only 1.05 per cent of GDP. That’s not an increase, that’s a 16 per cent cut. There can be no relentless growth in the activities of the EU when the budget is getting smaller and not larger.

A third example is the opt-out from the euro. In the debates leading up to the Maastricht treaty back in 1992, there was disagreement amongst the member states about whether to create a single currency. Some were in favour, others – that is Britain and Denmark – famously were against. The compromise reached was that those in favour could go ahead, while those that were not in favour could stand aside. That’s not the sign of an inexorable plan. No alien imposition there.

And since the Maastricht treaty, what has happened? Has Britain found itself dragged into the euro against its will? No, again, the answer is no. I have to say that the opt-out is looking rather more permanent than many people envisaged at the time, and right now is looking more permanent than ever. If we ever do join the euro in the future, it will be because we decide to do so and not because others decide that we should. There is no plan being imposed on us. There is no such plan.

I have limited myself to three examples but I could have given many more. The idea that there is a European plan being imposed on the UK is false, and a simple look at how the EU takes its decisions will show why this is the case.

The reason is that there is no such thing as the EU as distinct from its member states and its citizens. The EU is a forum in which the states and citizens come together to take collective decisions. It’s not a separate power to which the member states and citizens are obliged to pay tribute.

Specifically, in the case of the EU treaties and amendments to those treaties, all decisions have to be agreed unanimously by all member states and then ratified in all member states, each according to its own rules. The actions and decisions of the EU are based on the treaties which in turn have been agreed by the member states.

Power lies with the member states and their citizens, not with the EU as such. So, there are no plans and there could be no such plans. The basic underlying assumption behind the title of the debate is simply mistaken.

But, it would be rather rude to turn up and simply deny the basic premise of the title of the debate this evening. It would lead to a rather sterile and pointless discussion. So please allow me to change tack and deal with the question of what, if there were EU plans for Britain, those plans might be?

I’ll give some examples.

First, the other countries of the EU want us to be a prosperous trading partner. If the British economy is doing well, Britain will import more of their exports and so share its wealth with them through the processes of trade.

Secondly, they don’t want us to export our pollution to them. The Irish are very concerned about the radioactivity discharged into the sea by the Sellafield nuclear power station. And the Scandinavians have been badly affected by acid rain caused by British coal-fired power stations. They want us to cut down on pollution.

Next, they don’t want us to provide a haven for terrorists and criminals, fleeing justice. They want criminal suspects to be extradited and tried, rather than being allowed to hide behind national borders.

And lastly, they want us to treat citizens – our own and other countries’ – with respect. Countries that abuse human rights make awkward and unstable neighbours, as well as being a moral affront to us all.

So, if the EU must have plans for us, that’s what they are. And that is what the EU treaties reflect. That’s what the EU stands for.

And, go back through that list, and you see that the things that they want for us are the very same things that we want for them, too.

We want them to be good customers for our exports. We look nervously at the safety of French nuclear power stations on their side of the Channel coast. We remember the outrage when escaped IRA terrorists could plead spurious “political” justifications in other EU member states or when bank robbers could retire to the south of Spain, safe from extradition. We agree that human rights aren’t merely something that our government should observe, but we want other governments to observe them too.

So, the basis of agreement in the EU is that what the other European countries want for us is the same as what we want for them.

And – here’s the really important point – it’s the same as what we want for ourselves. This vision of prosperity, security, environmental protection and human rights, this European vision, is also our British vision.

That’s why, if you insist that there are EU plans for Britain, you should welcome them, and agree that they are the right ones for our future. Thank you.

Based on a speech by Richard Laming in a debate with Rt Hon John Redwood MP organised by UKIP, Wokingham, 23 March 2006. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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