European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:27 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour 12:27 pm, 13th October 2015

My Lords, your Lordships will be aware that I am not a natural supporter of this piece of legislation. I still regard the Government’s renegotiation and referendum strategy as a reckless gamble, not just with our position in Europe but with the future of the United Kingdom itself. I think that has to be said. But now that a referendum is inevitable, I will be campaigning wholeheartedly for us to remain. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that at the Labour Party conference, which I had the fortune—or misfortune —to attend a fortnight or so ago, a resolution was carried saying that whatever the outcome of Mr Cameron’s negotiation, Labour will be campaigning to remain in the EU, and there was not a single voice in opposition.

I also think that this is a cross-party question and I want the Prime Minister to succeed in his renegotiation efforts. I do not think that we will succeed in the referendum without a positive lead from him. I want to make just a few remarks about how I think he can succeed. First, he should listen to what this House has to say about this piece of legislation. Surely on an issue of historic significance which will matter for generations to come, we should legislate to have both the widest possible franchise and the widest range of objective analysis available to citizens about the issues at stake—not just a narrow calculus of the costs and benefits of membership but a thorough examination of the alternatives to membership and a more geopolitical argument about how we see Britain’s place in the world. This objective analysis is essential. We cannot let this issue be decided by the pockets of the hedge fund managers who will finance the anti campaign.

The second advice to the Prime Minister is that he must beware those pressing for delay to get, as they claim, the best possible deal. Of course, within the EU the Prime Minister must make his case robustly for the changes that he wants. However, the view seems prevalent among some people that if only the Prime Minister goes into that European Council room and bangs the table again and again, he will get whatever he wants. That is not the way the European Union works. It completely misunderstands the nature of the EU, which is a complex system of law and due process built up over decades precisely to try to stop countries behaving in that kind of arbitrary way.

Yet the people who say that the Prime Minister should up his demands do not do so because they think he will get his demands but because they want out. Noble Lords in this House who argue that, yes, they would be prepared to stay in Europe if we got comprehensive treaty change, a cut in the EU budget, a fundamental rewriting of the rules on free movement and the right for the House of Commons to veto EU laws must know that those are impossible demands. They make them only to justify a campaign to leave. We have a lot of experience of that in this party. Some of us fought Trotskyist infiltration in the past—and might have to do so again. I urge my friends opposite to avoid being taken in by what are called transitional demands.

Thirdly, the Prime Minister cannot solve everything in his renegotiation. He should look upon it as a pointer to the Europe that he wants to see with Britain at its heart. There is a tremendous opportunity to achieve reform in Europe. The new European Commission set out a very British agenda about deepening the single market, reforming the way Europe regulates and having trade deals with the rest of the world. I would also like to see a strong social dimension in that—others, such as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, might disagree. The agenda is now one of reform and our Prime Minister, if he wanted, could lead that. As the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said, there is also an opportunity for our Prime Minister to take a much stronger role in using the EU to demonstrate that Britain can still have an influence in the world. With French and German elections coming up, and with the end of the Obama presidency, there is a tremendous opportunity now for the Prime Minister to demonstrate that leadership using our membership of the European Union. I hope that he does so.

Finally, the referendum is basically an asymmetric choice. A vote to come out will be final. If we voted to come out, we would invoke Article 50 of the treaty and in practice exclude ourselves from the EU Council chamber and any of the debate about what Britain’s future role with the EU would be. We would be on our own and there would be no way back. One dangerous thing that we have to avoid is people on the other side somehow thinking that a vote to leave is actually a vote for better terms. It is not, and it never can be; it is a vote out. On the other side, a vote to remain is not a vote for the EU status quo. It is a vote for a strong Britain to argue for reform in Europe in the way that Britain wants to see. Therefore, I say to the Prime Minister, “Don’t mess about. Get on with it. Take courage in your hands and let’s go for this referendum quickly”.