Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): This debate has raised issues about sovereignty and co-operation that have reverberated through the House for decades.
The Bill puts before the British people one of the most important questions in a generation: should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union? The answer to that question will impact on our trading relationship, our economy, jobs, exports and our place in the world.
Since we joined the European Union many years ago, British foreign policy has had two key pillars: the first is exercising a leading role in Europe; and the second is being the principal ally of the United States. As we were reminded by the comments of the President of the United States this week, leaving the EU would have an impact on not just one, but both of those pillars.
At root, this debate is about how to maximise Britain’s opportunities and influence in the world. We are offered two alternative visions. On the one hand, there is a vision that this is best done alone, unencumbered by the rules that membership of the European Union entails. On the other hand, there is a belief that the challenges we face in the world are best faced up to in concert with others, whether about global trade, responding to climate change, the regulation of cross-border flows of people, money and ideas, or many other issues. This debate is therefore about power and influence, as well as about rules, and it is about how to maximise British power in an interconnected world.
The Prime Minister has set out a strategy for the renegotiation of our relationship with the European Union. He has not set out in full detail what he is asking for; he has talked about the issue of ever closer union, migration and benefits, and the rights of non-Eurozone countries. At the beginning of the debate, the Foreign Secretary said that he felt it would be unwise for the Government to display its full negotiating hand. Even as we debate the Bill, we do not yet know exactly what the Government are asking for.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be very unwise for the Prime Minister to raise false hopes about things like the free movement of people, and that he has undermined his negotiating position by saying that, whatever the outcome, he will recommend a yes vote?
Mr McFadden: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I believe that the reason the Prime Minister has not outlined his full negotiating position is the problem, which we have seen in this debate, of how it will go down with many Members of his own party.
Almost before the Prime Minister has begun the process and before the Bill has even had its Second Reading in this House, a new group has been established on the Conservative Benches, anticipating the failure of his strategy. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who spoke in the debate and who chairs the new Conservatives for Britain group, said at the weekend: “We wish David Cameron success” in his negotiation. At first glance, that looks like warm backing, but when one realises that the benchmark for success that has been set by the group is an individual parliamentary veto over all EU matters, one can see where this is heading.
Mr Baker: To be absolutely clear, as I said on the TV several times, the group has not laid out any red lines whatsoever. I have set out my red lines, but the group is not committed to any.
Mr McFadden: The hon. Gentleman is chairman of the group; I think it is reasonable to assume that he speaks for the group.
The Foreign Secretary, who is not exactly one of the leading Europhiles in the Government, made his view of that demand known within hours of the introductory article being printed:
“If you were talking about the House of Commons having a unilateral red card veto, that’s not achievable, that’s not negotiable because that would effectively be the end of the European Union.”[Interruption.]
Some Conservative Members may cheer that conclusion, but what is happening is that the Government are learning the meaning of the term “transitional demands”- demands that are made by those who know that they will not be met, as a pretext for saying that they have been betrayed and then campaigning for what they always wanted, which in this case is exit from the European Union. The new group calls itself Conservatives for Britain; they are, in fact, the desperate to be disappointed. This is the Prime Minister’s problem: there is nothing he can negotiate that will satisfy a significant proportion of his parliamentary party.
James Cleverly (Braintree) (Con): Is not the position that the right hon. Gentleman is outlining that there is no conclusion to the EU negotiations that would make him willing to leave the EU?
Mr McFadden: The hon. Gentleman gets to the heart of the Conservatives’ negotiating stance. My answer to him is that holding a gun to our head and saying to our European allies, “Give us what we want or we’re going to shoot ourselves,” is not the only negotiating strategy available to the United Kingdom. Either the Prime Minister will cave in to his colleagues’ demands or, sooner or later, there must be a reckoning between the Prime Minister and those in his party who are determined to take Britain out of the European Union.
The Prime Minister will come back and claim victory. Like the emperor in the fairytale, he will say, “Look at my wonderful new clothes.” Many of his Back Benchers will look at him with relief and loyalty, and say that he has got a good deal. However, we know that plenty of them will say that there is not a lot keeping him warm, and conclude that it is not enough.
Mr Nuttall: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr McFadden: I have given way a few times and would like to make progress.
Anticipating that situation, the Prime Minister appeared to put his foot down at the weekend about collective responsibility. He told journalists:
“If you want to be part of the Government, you have to take the view that we are engaged in an exercise of renegotiation and that will lead to a successful outcome. Everyone in Government has signed up to the programme”.
Every single newspaper and broadcaster interpreted that as meaning that all Ministers will have to vote yes if that is what the Prime Minister recommends at the end of the process. The Government even sent the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), around the studios to say: “On big issues like this We have a long-established principle of collective responsibility”.
But now the Prime Minister says that all of that was a misinterpretation. He is not blaming himself, he is blaming the media. He thinks that every single correspondent of every single national newspaper made exactly the same mistake. Is the truth not that, once again, he has been forced to retreat under pressure from large numbers of Eurosceptic Ministers threatening to resign if collective responsibility is enforced?
This matters because, once again, the country’s position in Europe is being dictated by the politics of the Conservative party, not the national interest. Once again, when confronted by Euro sceptics in his party, the Prime Minister has retreated. He staked out his position, but even on the back of the authority of an election victory it did not last for 24 hours. He has demonstrated yet again to his party that on this issue, he can be pushed. Believe me, it will keep on pushing.
The European Union does have to change. The stresses within the Eurozone are being played out daily. There must be a new momentum on how the single market works in services, digital, energy and other areas. The European Union must learn to regulate less and respect the balance of powers between the institutions and member states. It must offer hope to the many young unemployed, and it must continue to guarantee decency for people at work. However, we believe those things can be achieved without the damaging threat to leave the European Union and all that that would entail.
Andrew Bridgen: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr McFadden: No, I want to make progress. No one is arguing that the European Union is perfect, but it is our major trading partner. It is the destination for more than 40% of our exports in goods and the source of about half of our inward investment. Our position as gateway to the single market helps attract inward investment from outside the European Union, and the EU has helped to keep the peace in Europe for decades. It would be hugely reckless for us to take those real achievements for granted.
Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue of business and Europe is progressive, because bigger businesses will have the resources to relocate if they do not like the decision to pull out of Europe, but smaller ones will not and will be stuck here?
Mr McFadden: For businesses of all sizes, big and small, it makes no sense for us to put barriers and risks between them and their customers that do not exist at present.
As the debate unfolds, those who want to take us out of the EU will have to explain what it would mean for jobs, trade, exports and our collective security. On what terms will businesses want access to the single market? How much would they pay? What rules, including free movement, will they have to stick by? Is the strategy to walk away from the decision-making process and still accept many of the rules? Those who advocate Brexit in the name of sovereignty will have to explain why leaving the collective institutions where many of the rules of our economy are decided, and where we are currently represented, would enhance our power and influence. They will have to show why the major markets in the world outside the European Union would view us as a more attractive proposition if we walked away from where the rules are decided and were outside rather than in.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr McFadden: No, I will not give way anymore.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) set out our response to the Bill and the ways in which we will seek to amend it as it goes through the House, including by extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, because it is their future too. In seeking to amend the Bill in that and other ways, we will also be clear that we believe that the best future for Britain is to remain a member of the European Union and not to withdraw from a group of nations held together by both economic interests and common values. We do not believe that we should be forced into a false choice between trading with Europe and trading with the rest of the world, when we all know that we should be doing both.
As I have said, this is a debate about power, influence and our place in the world. Losing elections, as we have just done, does not absolve a party of opposition of its responsibility to do the right thing by the country. In fact, doing the right thing by the country is essential to recovery from defeat, and that is why we will continue to argue for a Britain that maximises its power, influence and opportunities, and for a Britain that plays a leading and important role in Europe, not one that retreats into the arms of nostalgia and nationalism. There has been much debate about whether Britain has lost its confidence as a country with global reach, and whether we are presiding over a quiet and unannounced decline in our influence. Be in no doubt, the debate that the Bill begins is very much part of that issue, and we will continue to argue for Britain to remain an open, engaged and confident member of the European Union in the years ahead.
Hansard, 9th June 2015