European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Morgan of Ely Baroness Morgan of Ely Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 11:37 am, 13th October 2015

My Lords, I thank the Minister for outlining the proposals in the EU referendum Bill, and we look forward to working through the details as it goes through this place. Labour supports the proposal to hold a referendum on EU membership. We as a party are committed to retaining our membership of the EU and belonging to the club which has maintained peace, security and prosperity in western Europe for well over half a century. We understand, as does the CBI and most Union members, that our membership of the EU is integral to the success of the UK economy, and that the financial value of EU membership is the equivalent of over £3,000 per year to every family in the UK. But we have also come to realise that the constant debate on this theme and lack of commitment to the project by this Government are denting investor confidence and making people question where our long-term future lies. Therefore, we have agreed to support the call for a referendum to settle the question—but we also believe that it is imperative that we win and retain our membership, which gives us access to the biggest single market and largest trading bloc in the world, in addition to being the largest development aid donor.

It seems ironic that, at the time when issues and consequences of globalisation are literally landing on our shores, some believe that we can lift the drawbridge and isolate ourselves from the world. It seems desperately naive to me that, while our economies are becoming more linked than ever, some think that it is a good idea to withdraw our long-term commitment to support markets in the EU, where 50% of our trade in goods goes, for some whimsical hope that we can make up the ground in alternative markets, even as those markets are stalling.

Labour, of course, wants to see an EU committed to social justice and protective of people’s rights as individuals and in the workplace, and an EU understanding of the needs for environmental protection and long-term sustainable development. We want to stand in solidarity with our continental partners on the challenges that confront us all, because we are internationalists with an outward-looking vision. We know that our ability to exert influence in this increasingly complex world means that we need to sing in a chorus along with others, and it makes sense that those others are our nearest geographical neighbours.

We agree with the proposed changes in the wording suggested by the Electoral Commission on the question to be put to the public. However, on the issue of franchise, we think it is difficult for the Government to argue that they are sticking to the same franchise as for the Westminster elections. After all, as the Minister just outlined, Peers and Gibraltarians will be allowed to vote. The key issue for the Labour Party is that 16 and 17 year-olds deserve to vote. We all remember the intelligence and enthusiasm with which the youngsters of Scotland engaged in the independence referendum, and the Government have agreed that in any future referendum on tax-raising powers in Wales, 16 year-olds should be allowed to vote. There is no consistency whatever in the Government’s position of not allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the European referendum. This would be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for them to voice their opinion. It will, after all, be they who will live with the consequences of the result of the vote longer than any of us. It seems highly unfair to deny them the opportunity to speak on the important issue of Britain’s place in the world. We encourage the Government to change their mind on this issue. We are aware that some are already agitating from within the Government to make this happen.

There seems an incredible naivety in the Government’s approach to the referendum. For a party which has still not declared which side it will support, it is odd that there is almost no information or plan for what the UK’s relationship with the EU would be if we were to leave it. In any normal business environment you would ask, “What is the alternative?”. This basic question does not seem to have been asked, but one thing is clear: it has certainly not been answered.

The British people have a right to know what their country will look like and feel like if they vote to leave the EU. Labour will be proposing and supporting a group of amendments that will require some basic answers from the Government on this question. We believe that the British people deserve to know what the impact will be on their rights as individuals within the UK in the event of a “leave” vote. Will the EU social legislation securing maternity and paternity leave remain in place? Will temporary agency workers still be able to depend on a degree of protection? Will EU directives on health and safety at work still be honoured? Will we still be able to rely on the free movement of goods, people and capital? What assurances can the Government give on these basic questions? Will the European Charter of Fundamental Rights be incorporated into British law? We do not have a constitution in the UK, so it has been useful to know that we have the EU as a backstop protection for a whole host of rights, including the right to freedom of expression and information, consumer protection and the right to collective bargaining. Where would our assurances be on these issues if we were to leave the EU? How much further would the Government have gone on the Trade Union Bill had we not had the EU as a guardian?

What about the rights of EU citizens living in the UK? Would they be affected if we left the EU? Would they be allowed to stay? For how long? Would we just stop any more EU citizens entering? Would EU citizens need visas in future? What about the rights of UK citizens living in another EU country? We believe that there may be as many as 2 million of these. Would they be expected to come home? Would they need to uproot themselves from their new lives? Would they have the right to stay and use continental hospitals? Could they continue to have their pensions transferred abroad?

On the legislative and statutory consequences for the UK, we are told time and again by the Eurosceptics how much EU law is handed down to us on a plate. It is not true, of course—every EU law has to be discussed and generally approved by the UK Government—but it would be wrong to pretend that EU law has not had a major bearing on legislative practices at all levels of government in the UK. If we take environmental law—an obvious area for the EU to act, as pollution knows no boundaries—it is clear that much of our domestic law, not just here in Westminster, but in the devolved bodies around the UK and in local government, references or puts into regulation EU legislation. Have the Government made any calculation of how many laws will need to be rewritten if we were to leave the EU, or of how much it would cost to employ additional armies of legislators and how long it would all take? What of our ability to pursue criminals abroad, co-operate on anti-money laundering initiatives, monitor extremists and work with Europol? The Government’s first priority should be to protect their people. What assessment have they made of the impact on their ability to protect and co-operate in the areas of home affairs and justice if we left the EU?

We know that the coalition Government carried out a major exercise on the balance of competences between the UK and the EU. It was a massive job of work, incredibly comprehensive in its analysis. It produced a report, which has been buried without trace because it does not meet the internal row occurring in the Tory party. We need to know the consequences for each government department if we were to leave the EU. We appreciate that this is a significant piece of work, but the consequences of a no vote would also be significant. We argue that it is worth building on the balance of competences review. It would make sense for the Government not just to carry out this work, but to make sure that the public can access its findings. Let us not bury the next report. The public need and deserve to know, prior to any vote being held.

We also believe that the Government should go beyond these immediate questions and be absolutely clear on what the alternatives to EU membership will look like in the event of a no vote. The public need to know what the relationship with our biggest market will look like if we were to leave. We need to have some idea of what the Government think will be negotiable in the event of a UK vote to leave the EU, as an alternative to full membership. Let us not forget that every one of the 27 EU member states would have to approve this new relationship. Let us not forget also that the Prime Minister’s veto on EU treaty change in 2011 did not endear him to EU leaders. We know that just last week the leaders of Finland, Belgium, Romania and Spain opposed the Prime Minister’s plan to deny EU workers in the UK in-work benefits. If we were to leave, how generous do we think our former EU partners would be in terms of the price of access to their markets?

Would the Government like a complex Swiss-like relationship with the EU—a model that negotiates case-by-case deals with the EU? Despite the supposed beauty of this model to some, it should be noted that Switzerland has not managed to secure access to the EU market for its main economic sector, financial services. We should be absolutely clear that maintaining London as the pre-eminent financial centre of Europe would become more difficult whatever model we adopt outside of the EU. Switzerland is also part of the Schengen zone and has no border controls at its frontiers. It has to implement a larger proportion of EU law than the UK.

Alternatively, we could go for a Turkish model of a customs union and not much else, but it should be noted that Turkey cannot conclude any separate trade deals—one of the biggest supposed advantages claimed by the no campaign. Or would the Government rather a Norwegian model—a model, let us not forget, that insists on freedom of movement, goods and capital? There would be no change on EU immigration. Incidentally, we would still have to pay for the privilege of trading and would have to comply with every single one of the market rules, without any say in formulating them. Would this really enhance our sovereignty as a nation? Norway has already advised us that we should leave only if we,

“want to be run by Europe”.

If we dismiss all these alternatives, we are left with a much more distant relationship with our continental friends. We could rely on WTO rules to have access to EU markets but that would leave British car manufacturers facing a 9.8% tariff on the export of cars. Eurosceptics say that we could negotiate all this away because the EU has a trade surplus with the UK, and this is true. But it does not take account of the fact that the EU’s exports to the UK account for about 2.5% of its GDP, while it is 14% of our GDP. I am pretty sure that I would be driving a hard bargain if I was sitting on the EU’s side of the table. Or do the Eurosceptics have some other plan in mind? If they do, it needs to be spelled out publicly before the vote.

There have been numerous studies to investigate the impact on the UK economy if we were to leave the EU but never before have we been in a position where the possibility of this happening has been so real. Therefore, we call on the Government to ask the Office for Budget Responsibility to publish a report prior to the referendum on the effects of withdrawal from the EU on the UK economy. We should also underline the fact that globalisation has meant there is an understanding that pooling resources and co-operation is the direction of travel—just look at the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, signed between the US and 11 different Pacific nations in recent weeks. Retreating and turning our back on the world needs to be understood as a retrograde step. Finally, it is worth underlining that although all these reports are essential to inform the public, the case in relation to the EU also needs to be made on an emotional and patriotic basis.

Britain has and should continue to have aspirations to lead in the world. The defence of our national interest in Europe and beyond—economically, politically and diplomatically—will be put in jeopardy if we leave the EU. Our partners, particularly the US, would not understand a decision to exit. It would diminish Britain’s influence, image and reputation. Instead of seizing an opportunity to show leadership ourselves, we would be handing over leadership in Europe to Germany for a generation. It is also likely that our seat on the UN Security Council would soon be called into question. Our absence from the political and diplomatic debate on the current threats facing Europe, not least on the EU’s eastern borders with Russia, would hardly enhance our influence within NATO.

Being a part of the single market will create jobs for our children and grandchildren. It will give them opportunities to live, work, study and travel on a broader stage. It will allow us influence on the international stage and forge stronger scientific and innovative ties. Our universities would suffer grievously from the absence of R&D funding from Europe. Let us not forget that if parts of the UK were to vote against and others were to vote in favour, most notably Scotland, it would drive the nationalist agenda for separation and almost certainly lead to a second referendum north of the border.

My first job on leaving university was as an intern in the European Parliament. I remember very clearly my first day, entering an office where there was a very chic-looking Parisienne wearing bright red lipstick, and a confident-looking German man ready for work. The Parisienne came in, put her feet on the desk, lit a cigarette and said, “What goes on here, then?”. The German was infuriated and through gritted teeth he said, “Do you mind putting out that cigarette?”. She answered, “Why? Do you have a problem?”. For me, that first scene in Brussels summed up the need for the EU. The Parisienne thought it was her right to smoke, the German thought it was his right to clean air, and now they had to sit down and work out their differences. In all the talk of markets and rights and responsibilities, we must not forget that the EU is the most successful example of a peacemaking institution in history. In this world full of instability, threats and new global challenges, we leave at our peril.