Laura Sandys is the Chair of the European Movement and a former Conservative MP.
This referendum is pushing us into a profound examination as to our relationship with the outside world, and demands us to look as much to our own systems as to focusing on “others”. We have a tendency to blame foreigners for our own shortcomings in our domestic sphere, while in public diminishing the power and influence we exercise internationally.
I agree with the Brexiteers that there is a need to discover a new sense of our own potential, but we should recognise how well-respected this country is in Europe, in the Commonwealth and in the newly emerging economies. We need to build up our confidence, and further exercise our extraordinary influence and power in all the important organisations of which we are members that impact upon the world in which we live and trade. This requirement is particularly illustrated by the fact that Belgium, a small country, sells more to India than the UK, and Germany trades extensively with countries whose names our Foreign Office would find hard to place on a map – so blaming the EU for holding us back sounds distinctly hollow.
The question posed to us at the referendum is not a zero sum game: it should never be a choice between the US and the Commonwealth or Europe. We are brilliantly placed to have a dynamic role in all three and, indeed, our position in each enhances the others as Churchill’s concentric circles of Europe, the United States and the Commonwealth so brilliantly articulated. Why do we believe that we have to trade in one of these crucial relationships for the others – why are we not ambitious to have it all? Whether we like what the EU is doing or not, it is not going away and our future – whether in or out – will be significantly influenced by what our neighbours do.
It is also a remarkable moment for us to be considering leaving the EU, when so much is on the table that will benefit the UK economy. The Digital Single Market is on its way. The UK has 70 per cent of digital business across Europe, and will provide small businesses up and down the country with the most amazing opportunities. Then there is the Services Single Market which will totally change the balance of trade relationship with our European partners, providing a level playing field for services as we now have for manufactured goods.
For those who want to attract the world’s businesses to the UK, then look no further than the Atlantic trade agreement, which will offer the UK the most amazing inward investment opportunities, with new US companies exploring the European market. This is all about Europe putting economic prosperity first – and Europe coming our way.
On the political side, we need our politicians to step up, start having greater ambition for our neighbourhood, and decide what is our longer-term vision for our role in Europe. We must take the action that is needed to take this lead, and deploy many more top-ranking civil servants in Brussels. We need to get stuck in and control agendas, fight every corner and make sure that our businesses cajole, lobby and get the changes that they need to prosper.
We need to recognise that Britain “exports” business regulations to the EU, and gets it to raise its standards to ours, with UK regulation setting the norm across 500 million consumers. The first Clean Air Act in the world was passed in 1957 in the UK, and set the framework for the European legislation on clean air. Social Europe was to a great extent shaped by some of the norms that the UK Government passed during the 1940s. And then of course the Single Market, which has delivered huge prosperity, was our concept. We are not a victim of the EU, but have been instrumental in setting its agenda.
And we must also look to the UK, too, and see how we can make our relationship with Brussels more effective. It is just totally inaccurate that we have no parliamentary sovereignty in relation to the EU. Our members of Parliament voted for the European Communities Act, and could repeal it tomorrow – with or without a referendum. It is totally in the hands of Parliament, if it chose to, to ditch membership of the EU. However, there has never been a majority of MPs in Parliament elected by the UK citizenry that has ever wanted to leave the European Union. Brexiters cannot have it both ways. If they want to “restore” Parliamentary sovereignty then put it to the vote – tomorrow – and see what our British elected representatives conclude. Today, I calculate that 75 per cent of British MPs would vote to stay in.
And if you want to strengthen scrutiny, then take a leaf out of the German model, which has a Basic Law that overrules some of European legislation, and much greater scrutiny at local government level. Then there is Denmark, which provides a strong link between its Parliament and EU negotiations. The Danish Parliament mandates its ministers before Council of Ministers meetings, providing them with instructions about what they can and cannot negotiate. This might upset our executive if implemented here, but it would create much greater scrutiny and input from MPs into the Brussels process.
We could also look at regulation and review the gold plating that goes on in Whitehall – not Brussels. If we had a European Legislation Repeal Bill, and brought all our implementation of EU Directives to the average implementation levels across other European countries, we could reduce regulation by a long way. It is in our hands to review the implementation of European laws, and benchmark this against other countries norms.
Now is the time to stop moaning, get our house in order and challenge our UK institutions to re-engage with Brussels through a more democratic approach at home – not just abroad. We need to regain our mojo in Europe, and put our foot back on the pedal. This is a moment for the British bulldog to pull itself together, and take up its role as a leader – not a grumpy bystander.