I thank the Minister for updating the House and for giving me advance sight of today’s statement.
The decision on whether or not the United Kingdom remains a member of the European Union is the biggest decision this country will take for a generation.
We on this side are clear that Britain is a more powerful, prosperous and secure country by being members of the European Union.
We want to see Britain playing a full role in shaping a better and reformed Europe which deepens its single market, offers more jobs and hope to its young people, a Europe which uses its collective strength in trade with the rest of the world and which stands together to combat the urgent security problems we face.
We do not stand for the nationalism that says we would be better off out and for a Brexit that would see Britain weaker in power and influence and diminished in the eyes of the world.
The Prime Minister has set out in his speech this morning and the letter to the President of the European Council his negotiating agenda.
As we have already heard from comments today from his own backbenchers, the problem the Prime Minister faces in doing this -; and the reason he has been so reluctant to put his position down on paper until now – is that there is nothing he can renegotiate which will satisfy the large number of Hon Members sitting behind him who want to leave the EU at all costs. They are desperate to be disappointed and their only role in this debate is to push for demands they know will not be met.
The agenda published today raises important issues including some which we raised in our own election manifesto earlier this year such as protection for the rights of non Eurozone countries and the rights of national parliaments.
Can the Minister answer a few specific points:
1) It is right that we press for guarantees for non-Eurozone members in the future. Our manifesto argued for this and it is in our economic interests. But does the Minister agree that in so doing, it would be a mistake for Britain to volunteer for or embrace some kind of second class or associate membership of the EU while still paying the full costs of membership? That would be an outcome which weakened Britain rather than strengthened our position.
2) Why is there so little in this agenda about jobs and growth for the future when the problem Europe has been struggling with has been low growth and high unemployment?
3) When the Minister talks about reducing the burden on business can he guarantee that nothing in this agenda reduces the hard won employment rights which have been agreed at European level over the years including rights to paid leave, rights for part time workers and fair pay for temporary and agency workers? Does the Minister accept that it would be a huge mistake to try to build support for a reformed EU on the back of a bonfire of workers’ rights?
4) On free movement we note the retreat from earlier hints from the Prime Minister that he would seek an emergency brake or seek to end the principle of free movement itself. Can the Minister tell the house on the issue of access to in work benefits is the Prime Minister set on the four year timescale for access to such benefits or is this subject to negotiation at the European Council? Could he also tell us specifically whether this will be through a change in EU legislation or changes to the way the system works here in the UK?
5) Finally does he agree that for those who want to reject this agenda as too little, and who are determined to take Britain out of the EU, it is for them to state clearly to the British people what being Out would mean for jobs, trade, investment and employment rights for our citizens and for our national security?
The EU faces big challenges in recovering from the Eurozone crisis, in offering people more hope for the future and in dealing with the refugee crisis but we believe these challenges are best met by Britain playing a leading role in the future of the EU and using our power and influence to overcome them.
There is a broader case than these four points we are discussing here today which must be made.
Our history is not the same as many other member states. Perhaps we will never look at these issues through precisely the same eyes. But that is not the same as wanting to leave. Reform is essential and it should be an ongoing process not a single event. And on this side of the House we will keep arguing for a Britain engaged with the world, using its power and influence to the maximum and not walking away from a partnership we have been members of for forty years and which has brought so many benefits to the people and the economy of this country.