Lord Flight is chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Forty-two years ago, I campaigned and voted in favour of being a member of the Common Market. I was then ill-informed, and thought I was voting for European economic co-operation and not ever-closer political union. What has happened since, substantially by stealth, has made it clear that the EU project is about politics and political union more than economics.
I respect and understand those who support the aspiration of the United States of Europe – that, in a competing world, Christendom should come together to make its weight felt. (I would, however, respect them more if they were open about this rather than hiding behind debatable points about the Single Market.)
But I do not agree, both because I want our own Parliament and democratic system to make our laws and regulations, and because I think it is dangerous and mistaken to try to side track the nation state. The risk, as we are starting to see, is of fanning the flames of nationalism. I find it offensive that already some 60 per cent of the laws and regulations applying in the UK now come directly from the EU without any Parliamentary approval, and when there are many with which I disagree.
The economic arguments are important, but they are balanced. The Single Market, which amounts to a protected EU market place, clearly benefits the large oligopolistic businesses; but the cost of regulatory compliance makes it unattractive to smaller businesses compared to other parts of the world. Thirteemillion British people work for small businesses. So far, they have largely been drowned out by the interests of the large, oligopolistic businesses.
The importance of UK exports to Europe is also regularly overstated: after excluding goods being transhipped elsewhere, mostly via Holland, the real level of British exports to the EU is around 38 per cent, of our total exports and declining. The importance of the UK market for the rest of Europe effectively guarantees that satisfactory trading arrangements can and will be worked out between the UK and the EU if Britain left the EU.
No doubt in some areas, such as finance, the UK would have to have a similar regulatory regime for services and products being sold into the EU, but not for our domestic market nor for other overseas markets. In financial services, London has skills needed by Europe and not always readily available in continental Europe. Some 20 years ago, Frankfurt tried to compete with London, hiring lots of staff from London, but failed dismally. Being able to negotiate our own trade agreements with other parts of the world, and especially Commonwealth countries, should serve to boost exports substantially to economies that are anyway growing much faster than the EU bloc.
With the issue of migration from vicious war-torn countries growing ever larger, control of our borders and of immigration to the UK are likely to be the most important issues for many voting in the referendum. People understand that once migrants have acquired citizenship in another EU country they can move to the UK under present EU freedom of movement principles.
I wish the Prime Minister and his team success in achieving major EU reform and returning important political powers to the UK. If, however, he is blocked by the EU establishment, I suggest he has only two possible courses of action – to support Brexit in the referendum or to stand down as Prime Minister.
The fundamental points are, however, that after 42 years and major political changes, it is clear the British people want and need to have their say on our relationship with the EU; and that the rules of the campaign should be fair and appropriate and not involve either the use of direct or indirect EU or Government funding of the Remain (or Anti!) Campaigns. During the campaign, Ministers and MPs (of all Parties) should be free to speak out and support whichever side of the debate they agree with, as was the case in 1975.