Philip Hammond is MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
Less than five weeks on from our historic election victory, this Conservative majority Government is delivering on its pledge to hold an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Today I’m presenting the EU Referendum Bill (one of the first acts of legislation we have brought forward to Parliament since returning to Government) for its second reading in the House of Commons.
The Bill proposes a simple question: ‘Should the UK remain a member of the European Union?’ This was the Electoral Commission recommendation in 2013 for the Wharton Bill. It sets the franchise as the one used for Westminster Parliamentary elections, plus Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar and Members of the House of Lords. It guarantees that a referendum will be held by the end of 2017, and gives a power to set an earlier date if appropriate. It disapplies the restrictions on the role of government in the last four weeks of the campaign because in this referendum, they would be inappropriate and unworkable. You would effectively constrain a whole area of Government business with the EU and its structures by keeping restrictions in place. And the Bill increases the lead campaigns’ spending limit to reflect inflation since the original spending limit was set, though it keeps the public grant to the campaigns frozen in cash terms.
It’s been 40 years since the British people last had a say on our EU membership. The organisation has changed beyond recognition since then and it’s now time to put that right. The British public are clear that they are not happy with the status quo. And the Government is determined to address those concerns. Many people said there would never be a referendum; many said we wouldn’t stick to our promise. But despite the opposition from other political parties, today we are delivering on our pledge.
Treaty after treaty, there has been an undermining of our sovereignty as the European project has moved towards an “ever closer union”. The evidence for that is there for all to see: Labour presided over a steady transfer of powers to Brussels, gave away billions of pounds of the British rebate for nothing in return, allowed massive increases in the EU budget and signed us up to the Eurozone bailout mechanism.
In contrast, over the last Parliament, the Prime Minister managed to remove us from that bailout mechanism, cut the EU budget for the first time ever and vetoed an EU treaty that wasn’t in our national interest. But we are clear that the British people want further action to reform the EU.
So in preparation for this negotiation, I have visited the capitals of Europe, sitting down with almost all EU Member States to discuss our plans with Government ministers, business leaders and Parliamentarians. The Prime Minister is also holding meetings with other EU leaders and using every opportunity to explain our position ahead of presenting our proposals at the end of this month at the European Council.
We have set out clearly the outcomes we must achieve in our negotiations: there needs to be fundamental change in the EU to make it more competitive, more dynamic, more outward looking, with a reduction in regulation and able to compete against the growing markets of China, India and South America.
We have made it clear that Britain does not share the belief in an ever-closer union. That might be good for some, but it is not for us. Crucially, we need guarantees to ensure that our interests are protected as those that want to integrate further do so.
We want a stronger role for national Parliaments, to allow groups of them to block EU legislation in the future and we want to reclaim powers back from Brussels.
We need to tackle benefit abuse and welfare tourism. People in our country accept other EU citizens coming here to work; just as many Brits head to Europe to settle and work there. What people can’t accept is people arriving here to claim benefits with no intention of working. And, when it’s possible for an EU migrant to claim around £700 a month in tax credits and other benefits to send to their children abroad, it’s clear we need to change the rules on in-work benefits, too.
As we have said, we are going to hear lots of different views, lots of ups and downs, during this renegotiation process. What matters is that we are setting out clearly the concerns of the British people and the reforms that we seek to address them ahead of the referendum.
We are conducting our negotiations with a determination to succeed. But as the Prime Minister has said, and I have said many times; if we cannot achieve the changes we need, we rule nothing out. We want to be able to present a package of changes that will deliver a reformed EU to put to the British people for them, not politicians, to decide whether Britain’s future should be in the EU, or not.
We know the EU can be flexible when it wants to be and can move quickly when it needs to. We expect our EU partners to engage with us to deliver the substantial and irreversible package of reform we need if we are to recommend staying in the EU.
Over the coming months, the debate will rage and we will hear many different views of Britain’s future relationship with Europe. But I believe everyone in our Party will agree on one core principle: that it must be the British people who decide our future membership of the EU. That’s what we promised in our election manifesto. And that is what we are delivering with the Second Reading of the EU Referendum Bill today.