GLASGOW CONSERVATIVES LUNCHEON CLUB
27 Eastwood Mains Road, Giffnock, G46 6QE
Monday 15th February. 12 noon.
Ladies & Gentlemen,
It’s a great pleasure to have been invited to speak to your luncheon club. It is always an event I have enjoyed. When I was an MEP, I would do this engagement on my way to the airport before flying to Brussels on a Monday afternoon. Now that I’m retired, I don’t have that hassle any more. However, I’m here to tell you a bit about the EU today and about the forthcoming IN/OUT referendum. As you know, David Cameron has been criss-crossing Europe for months now, negotiating with EU leaders on a reform package. Achieving change in the EU is like putting the brakes on a super-tanker, it can take forever. But our Prime Minister has stated at the outset that his criteria for reform encompassed five key areas and that he has made significant progress in each of these areas, so much so that we may even be able to hold a referendum in June this year. The five areas in which David Cameron has sought reform are:
- A ‘red card’ system for national parliaments to block unwanted EU laws
- An end to something for nothing welfare for EU migrants
- No more British taxpayers’ money being used to bail out the Eurozone
- An agreement that we will keep the Pound, never join the Euro and fair treatment for our currency in Europe; and
- Britain out of ‘ever closer union’ so we do not become part of a European Superstate
Cameron was told repeatedly that he would never achieve all of these reforms. He was told it was impossible to expect national parliaments to be allowed to veto unwanted EU legislation and red tape. He was assured that freedom of movement laws meant that Britain could never curb welfare payments to EU migrants. But he persevered and lo and behold, he has achieved almost the entire package. Of course there is more work to be done and more negotiation on the fine print, but there is already general agreement amongst the 28 EU Member States on the five key areas of reform.
1/ Firstly on the ‘red card’ system for national parliaments to block unwanted EU laws. This is a pledge that if 55% of the national parliaments in Europe agree, they will be able to block EU legislation within 12 weeks of it being tabled. Britain would need the support of at least 14 other Member States to achieve this veto, but it should be a good way of curbing excessive EU laws.
2/ Secondly, Cameron has won an agreement on an emergency brake allowing benefits to be restricted for up to four years if our welfare system is under pressure. Benefits under this system will be gradually phased in for EU migrants, but for the first two years they will get no benefits whatsoever. I think this will act as a major deterrent to workers from Poland, Romania and the Baltic States coming to the UK in the hope of getting something for nothing. Child benefits will continue to be paid to migrant workers, but only at the rate prevailing in their home country. Again this will be a deterrent to coming to Britain to look for work, when child benefits will simply be the same as if they had stayed at home.
3/ Cameron also demanded that the UK should be protected from laws affecting the Eurozone and that we should never be expected to contribute to any Eurozone bailouts like those in Greece. This is of vital importance to Britain because London is regarded as a global financial centre. But even here in Scotland we have 165,000 jobs in financial services and we cannot allow them to be undermined by new regulatory controls that might be suitable for the Eurozone but are wholly incompatible with Britain. This reform is still under debate as France in particular and some other Eurozone countries are adamant that no single country like the UK should have a right to veto Eurozone legislation.
4/ And on the vexed question of ‘ever closer union’ Cameron has won major guarantees. The current President of the European Commission is Jean-Claude Juncker. He is desperate to see the UK remain a member of the EU and he is cooperating with David Cameron to achieve these reforms. Juncker’s predecessor Jose Manuel Barroso told the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2013 that they should no longer be afraid of using the 'F' word....meaning federalism. He said that the Eurozone crisis had created an ideal opportunity for moving ahead with the European project of 'ever closer union', binding Member States into a federal system, which would give central control of budgets to Brussels and Berlin and allow the central fixing of taxes. When Barroso spelled out this vision, it was a different 'F' word that could be heard from many Conservative Euro MPs. The UK could never accept such a system. We want to be part of a flexible and prosperous single market that gives British goods and services access to over 500 million EU citizens, creating jobs and economic growth. We don't want to be part of a restrictive, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all, centrally controlled EU super-state, where almost all British sovereignty has been leached to Brussels and where the euro-elite and Berlin call the shots. Cameron has achieved this distinctive recognition for Britain. We will never again be required to be part of the process of ever closer union.
5/ Britain has also found support for a demand for cuts to the massive, overwhelming avalanche of red tape that ties the hands of business and industry and makes us less competitive. We have heard endless promises from successive Commission presidents that they would tackle the red tape burden on business, but in fact this has never happened. During my 15 years in the European Parliament the book of rules, which every EU Member State has to sign up to, grew from 86,000 pages in 1999, to 146,000 pages by 2014. The so-called acquis communautaire needs to be totally revised and dramatically cut. The CBI says that 70% of the rules and regulations affecting British business and industry now emanate from Brussels. This needs to be slashed dramatically without delay and Cameron has achieved a pledge that this will now happen.
6/ On national security, Cameron has achieved a significant victory, with EU rules strengthened to allow Britain to turn away EU nationals with a criminal conviction, even if they do not present an imminent threat. Even people who have no criminal conviction but whom police intelligence tells us could be a threat to national security can now be turned away. This was something Theresa May was very keen to see and it will put an end to terrorists and criminals who pose a threat to our society from using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation.
One thing that I am sad has not been done is to abolish the Strasbourg seat of the European Parliament and centralise all of the EU’s parliamentary activities in Brussels. It is sheer nonsense that 7,000 MEPs and staff must be uprooted every month, twelve times a year, to travel to Strasbourg, simply to satisfy French pride. It is ludicrous that the Commission and European Parliament continue to call on EU Member States to tighten their belts economically while they squander money on this Olympic scale. It is just not sustainable.
That is a failure of these talks that we will have to return to. But overall I believe our Prime Minister has done a first class job. Don’t believe for a minute those who say we would save billions by leaving the EU. The same people always point to Norway as an example of how Britain could survive and benefit from staying outwith the EU. We did a comparison in 2014 between Britain and Norway and we found that per-capita, the Norwegians pay the same as us in tariffs to enable their goods to be sold in Europe, as we pay in EU budget contributions. The only difference is that Norway has to abide by every single rule and bit of red tape, the same as we do, but they have no seat at the table in Brussels to define or reform these laws. David Cameron has proved that reform is possible, but only because we are a full member of the EU.
Putting the brakes on the EU super-tanker was never going to be easy, but David Cameron’s historic victory in the general election has greatly strengthened his hand and boosted UK credibility in Brussels. Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, should now do everything they can to facilitate the reforms that Britain seeks, so that when we hold the referendum the majority of UK citizens will feel able to vote ‘YES’ for continued EU membership.