Sir Eric Pickles is Patron of Conservatives for Reform in Europe, a former Communities and Local Government Secretary and MP for Brentwood and Ongar.
The Prime Minister has come back from Brussels, the city which Boris loves, with a good deal for Britain. He spent two days and nights locked in tough negotiations with 27 other leaders, standing up for our country. He won reforms that give us a special status in the EU. He secured a legally binding agreement that carves Britain out of ever closer union.
Dear chums, we Conservatives have been going on about the EU superstate for years. So when our Prime Minister comes back with a deal which says, in black and white, that we can have a different destination to the rest of our European partners, that we can stand apart from deeper Eurozone integration, that “references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom” and that our country “is not committed to further political integration into the European Union”, I’m not inclined to spit into his beer glass. I say job well done.
I heard all the criticism, and I saw that it came from people who were falling over themselves to be disappointed. They had made up their mind to leave, which is their right. When they speak of radical reform what they really mean is a series of demands which no Prime Minister could possibly have made without heading straight for Brexit. Some may not like it, but the fact is that the deal was faithful to what the Prime Minister set out in his Bloomberg speech and what we pledged in our manifesto.
I’ve watched previous Conservative Prime Ministers tell us why they’ve had to sign over more power to Brussels, and now I watch this one bring powers back. Permanent protection for the pound. Permanent exemption from ‘ever closer union’. Safeguards against discrimination by the Eurozone. The ability to prevent criminals coming here and deport those already here. Tougher action against fraudsters. Prevention of sham marriages to get around free movement. Prevention of non-EU families being brought to Britain. Restrictions on child benefit being sent to foreign countries. An emergency brake on EU migrants having full access to welfare for four years. Protection from unwanted new EU legislation through a ‘red card’ mechanism. It’s a great list. Rather than dismiss all of this, I’m more inclined get out onto the doorsteps and sell it.
I’ve listened to the Brexit campaigners all weekend and they like to say what’s wrong with Brussels. I agree with some of the criticism. But the moment they’re forced to address what should replace our membership of the EU they come badly unstuck. Asked if a trade deal would give the same full access to the single market as we have now, they won’t answer. The truth is that no other deal could give full access.
This isn’t some debating point, it has real consequences. Businesses are already saying that they are worried, or even (HSBC last week) that they’d move jobs from Britain to Europe if we left. Others might be willing to sacrifice business, investment and jobs on this ideological altar, or to take the risk of that happening. I’m not.
We give up sovereignty when we make international agreements that bind us. We give it up in NATO because we’re bound to go to the defence of another country under attack. We give it up when we make trade deals. Parliament decides to do these things in the national interest.
Come on, you Brexit fans: you’ve been at this for years. What is the alternative model? You have made more suggestions than the scoreboard on the Eurovision song contest. Turkey? Nothing like the benefits of the single market. Iceland? Our principal export isn’t fish. Norway? Switzerland? Nul points. They have partial access to the single market but also pay into the EU, accept free movement, have regulation without any say. Hardly a better deal.
Brexit campaigners suffer from a grand delusion that, right after walking out of the EU, our former partners would be bound to give us a better deal than we have now, with none of the cost. Ah, the Brexiteers say, we buy more from them than they buy from us. This is an epic mistake. Their economy is far less dependent on trade with us than ours is with them. Those who call for a renegotiation in the hope of a better deal haven’t begun to think through the realpolitik.
It is difficult to say that we need to leave to reduce immigration if you then promote a deal which means we’d still have free movement. Yesterday one leading Brexit advocate said we should still have “generous” levels of migration from the EU. I somehow doubt that Nigel Farage agrees.
I agree with the Prime Minister that we currently have the best of both worlds, in this huge market of 500 million people – and one which is doing more and more trade deals with the rest of the world – but outside the Eurozone, and outside the Schengen passport-free area, too.
Brexit campaigners seem to believe that if we only left the EU, all our problems would go away. But as my old mate Patrick McLoughlin told the Cabinet on Saturday, “I’d love to live in Utopia too, but I’ve got a feeling when we get to Utopia we’ll find the EU will still be there.”
I know that many fellow Conservatives worry that the Eurozone is in trouble, that these economies are faltering with high unemployment, and they somehow want to detach themselves from this.
If we leave, Europe will still be by far our largest export market. We need them to be a success, which is why the part of the EU deal that focused on deregulation and competiveness was so important. It’s not sensible to say that the share of EU trade is declining and we should look elsewhere – they are still our biggest trading partner. We keep hearing about the “Anglosphere” which is waiting to embrace us, but leaders of the US, Australia and New Zealand keep telling us they want us to stay in the EU. We need that European market, and our best opportunity for global trade is being part of a huge bloc, driving deals with others around the world.
Conservatives campaigned at the election on our economic record, with the fastest growth of any of the G7 countries and record job creation. This economic success has been delivered while we’ve been in the EU. Turning around the economy, dealing with the deficit, was and is our huge achievement. Why would we want to put this at risk? I think we need to have a little less ideology and a little more practicality.
The Prime Minister won us the first overall Conservative majority since 1992. The electorate put their trust in him, and I believe they will again on this issue.
Over a hundred of my Conservative colleagues in the House of Commons have already declared their public support for the Prime Minister, the special status for Britain in Europe which he secured, and for remaining in a reformed EU – and the number is growing. We believe that Britain would be stronger, safer and more prosperous in a reformed EU.