My Lords, I very much agree with the Minister on the importance of this Bill and of the referendum to come. The battle lines are already being drawn and campaigns are being drawn up, and personally I very much look forward to the jousting to come between, among others, the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, and the noble Lord, Lord Rose, both of whom I had the pleasure to meet for the first time in Paris.
I tie my own banner firmly to the lance of the “in” campaign. I believe that Britain’s economic interests lie firmly in membership of the European Union; the single market helps our exports and encourages European Union and non-European Union companies to invest here and, in doing so, to create jobs, many of them in high unemployment areas outside the affluent south-east. Trade, investment and jobs all benefit from our EU membership. Would the economy collapse if we were out of the EU? Of course not—but would that trade, that investment and those jobs be at risk? Yes, they would, and the consequences are unknown and unknowable.
The argument that our membership of the EU somehow hinders us from developing our trade with the growing economies of China, India, Brazil and Indonesia strikes me as bizarre. Membership of the EU has not hindered our trade relations with the United States, for example, so why should it with others outside the European Union; surely, we need to pursue both energetically. This is not a zero-sum game. The EU trade agreements with much of the non-EU world, negotiated with the clout of an EU of more than 500 million people, help our own trade. We can and do influence the negotiation of such agreements and we benefit from the results. Do we want to risk all that by leaving the EU? I do not think so.
Our influence as part of the European Union boosts our foreign policy too. Take the long, difficult but ultimately successful negotiations with Iran. Britain’s presence alongside that of France and Germany in formulating and supporting the EU’s position, linked to our strong relationship with the United States, had a real and positive influence over the outcome of those negotiations in Britain’s interest.
I fear that Ukraine provides a foretaste of what life might be like outside the European Union. Chancellor Merkel goes to Washington in February for talks with President Obama. Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande then go to Minsk for talks with President Putin, and earlier this month, the three meet again in Paris to discuss not only Ukraine but Syria. Where was the UK? Absent. Yet the civil war in Ukraine, on Europe’s borders, and the crisis in Syria really matter to us. It is surely in our interests to work within the EU with the French and the Germans to seek solutions with the Russians to crises such as those in Ukraine and Syria.
To advance our own interests, we need to be on the inside working with our EU partners and fully engaged—not in a static European Union. The EU faces huge challenges, notably over the future of the eurozone and the migration crisis. It has to evolve to meet those challenges, and we, the United Kingdom, need to ensure, as others will, that as it changes, our interests are advanced and protected.
I therefore hope that the present negotiations over our membership succeed. In particular, we need to ensure that a more closely integrated eurozone—which needs to and, I believe, will, happen—in no way conflicts with the single market of all 28 European Union states, and that the position of the City of London is thereby not jeopardised. I hope that the Minister will be able to give an account of the present state of negotiations, although I recognise the need for caution while they are continuing.
I hope that the negotiations can be successfully completed and the referendum held by this time next year at the latest. The closer we get to the French and German elections in the summer and autumn of 2017, the less likely they will be to make the concessions we need. I therefore see no advantage in drawing out the negotiations and delaying the referendum into 2017.
I look forward to Committee on the Bill. I do not think it should be greatly delayed, but there are issues which need discussion, some of which have already been mentioned. Like others, I think that there is a strong case for extending the franchise, as in the Scottish referendum, to 16 and 17 year-olds. The purity of the general election franchise has already been breached to allow Peers and citizens of Gibraltar to vote. It would surely be right to allow the generation who will be so greatly affected by the outcome of the referendum to take part in it. I also hope that the Government will agree to provide an assessment of the implications for Britain outside the European Union alongside that of Britain inside a reformed European Union. That seems to me both fair and necessary.
I have one final point. We have over the years under successive Prime Ministers had a real and positive influence over the EU’s development: the single market, enlargement to the east and south and a more diversified European Union. It seems to me to be firmly in the British interest and, indeed, the British tradition to have the confidence to continue to use our influence within the EU—within, I hope, a reformed EU—to advance our national interest and the interests of the EU itself.