As Attorney General from 2010 to 2014, I had plenty of opportunity to observe the workings of the EU and its impact on our country. The EU and its institutions exist to give effect to the Treaties by which its 28 member states agreed to create a single market in goods and services and promote co-operation in other fields including environmental protection, health and safety and security and policing. The UK enjoys a special position in not being bound by some parts of the EU Treaties. But legal interpretation of what the Treaty obligations are, can be complex and we do not always get the outcomes for which we have argued, either from the Commission which administers the working of the EU or the Court of Justice which interprets EU Law. In addition, while we enjoy a veto over key areas of the Treaties, other parts are, by our consent, subject to qualified majority voting, which means they can be agreed to despite our dissent. So some of the issues with which I dealt could be frustrating and there are perfectly valid criticisms that can be made of the EU’s operation and the way it has developed.
But none of these criticisms persuade me that we would be better off leaving. By virtue of joining up in 1973 we opened a period of progressive national economic revival after being seen as the “sick man of Europe”, that has continued to this day. The period has witnessed a massive expansion in our trade in goods and services with the EU which now stands at around 45% of all our exports. Our service sector which makes up about 75% of all our global exports and is of exceptional importance to us has benefitted particularly, because many countries are intensely protectionist in excluding foreign service providers at the behest of their own interest groups.
We have also enjoyed a growth in prosperity based on the arrival of inward investment which has seen the UK as a perfect base for entering the EU market.. The automotive industry has revived on the back of it, as has the financial services sector of the City. Locally the pharmaceutical sector benefits greatly from being a base to serve the EU as well as our domestic market, as evidenced by the presence here of so many multinationals.
The EU’s negotiating power as a market of 450 million people has also helped unlock markets further afield where tariffs and protectionism have been an obstacle. This is very much work in progress but the more than 50 agreements achieved to date are of great value to UK business seeking to trade in countries such as Mexico..
I am also quite satisfied from my experience as Attorney General and my work as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee that the EU is of value to us in developing co-operation on security and justice. The sharing of high level intelligence may be able to be done at a bilateral level, but the development of formal structures of police co-operation, easier extradition of suspects, sharing databases and improving the security deficiencies of countries whose partnership we seek and need in fighting terrorism and serious crime, is greatly helped our participation in the EU.
I also have heard nothing to make me believe that we would be better off out of the EU. Brexiters argue that leaving would still enable us to negotiate to be in a single market but somehow avoid the regulation which we find irksome. This seems to me highly doubtful. If we want to follow the example of Norway, outside of the EU but inside the European Economic Area, we will have to accept most of the regulations, including freedom of movement, with no ability to influence their creation. If we want freedom from the regulations we will have to accept a relationship where tariffs are paid on our imports from and exports to the EU. That will raise prices for us here, diminish our own ability to export to the EU and remove our status as a favoured place for investment from the rest of the world. We will also have to negotiate fresh treaties to replace the agreements with other countries, with no certainty of getting as good a deal.
I worry too, that much of the current debate is being conducted on a false view of national self interest. The lessons of our history are that the wellbeing of our neighbours on the Continent of Europe is critical to our own. The arc of conflict and violence running from Russia and the Ukraine down to the Middle East, threatens us all. It is very much to our advantage to support our neighbours just as it is for them to help us. Leaving the EU will create challenge and crisis for them and make it harder for them to work with us, particularly as they will be upset by our rejection, after making significant concessions to recognise our areas of concern in the recent agreement reached by the PM in Brussels . That in itself makes the suggestion that they will then give us highly preferential exit terms fanciful.
If we vote to remain, the one thing which is not affected is our sovereignty. It is our absolute right to withdraw completely from the EU at any time we would wish by giving notice under Article 50. It is in this sense no different from the more than 13200 treaties the UK has signed and ratified since 1834, many of which also contain binding mechanisms for resolving disagreements of interpretation. All of them were entered into because, whilst a sovereign nation, we considered it to be in our national interest to do so and bind others in the process to the same rules. This willingness to engage internationally is at the heart of our success as a nation. We should strive to build on it and not destroy the good we have achieved.