Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said "a grand, unilateral repatriation of powers might sound appealing... but in reality it is a false promise, wrapped in a Union Jack".
In Europe today, there are effectively three places you can be. They fit together like rings around a circle. There’s the core: Where the eurozone countries are now pulling together more closely; integrating further to shore up the single currency. Then there is the ring around that – the inner circle: The states who aren’t in the euro, but are members of the EU. And the outer circle: Where you find the accession countries, EEA countries, Norway, Switzerland, and so on.
The UK is in the inner circle – but the terrain is shifting. The core is tightening – to what degree we don’t yet know.
Some states on the outside are seeking, over time, to head further in. And, as a different Europe emerges, over the coming years... we have to decide where the UK fits within it. What role will we play in our new neighbourhood?
Very few people are now suggesting we move into the centre. Joining the euro will not be in our interests anytime soon – certainly not in my political lifetime. But there are forces who want to pull us towards the edge; towards the outer circle. Reducing the extent to which we cooperate on the continent; happy for the Channel to widen. Hoping, even, that it becomes a gulf.
Today I want to explain why that is a very dangerous position... leaving the UK isolated and marginalised. And I want to offer a more compelling alternative: A strong UK, influential in Europe and so more influential in the world;
working with our allies on the issues that matter to our prosperity and security; driven by pragmatism, as opposed to dogma, in these debates. Unambiguously in the inner circle.
That will require an approach that is engaged and balanced. So not accepting every request or regulation sent from Brussels. But, equally, cooperating constructively where it is in our national interest to do so.
I want to focus on the proposal doing the rounds that... the best way to improve the UK’s position in Europe... is to renegotiate the terms of our relationship with the rest of the EU. We should opt out of the bad bits; stay opted in to the good bits; and the way to do that is a repatriation of British powers. That seems very reasonable; in fact, it’s a pretty seductive offer – who would disagree with that?
But, look a little closer: Because a grand, unilateral repatriation of powers might sound appealing... but, in reality, it is a false promise, wrapped in a Union Jack. Let me explain why. I am all for reducing frivolous and expensive European rules... And, more profoundly, we need to refocus the EU... So it does more where it adds value, and less where it doesn’t... But there is a lot more we need to do to get the Europe focused on the policies that create economic growth and make it more competitive. And I want the UK leading that.
So I do not think the EU is perfect by any stretch and I’m a big advocate of EU reform. But this idea that we should – or could – extract ourselves from the bulk of EU obligations is nonsensical. It is wishful thinking to suggest we could - effectively - give ourselves a free pass to undercut the Single Market... only to then renegotiate our way back in to the laws that suit us. The rest of Europe simply wouldn’t have it. If the French tried to duck out of the rules on the environment or consumer protection...; if the Germans tried to opt out of their obligations on competition and the single market... we would stop them – and rightly so.
And let’s be honest: Many of the people who advocate repatriation are the same people who want us out of Europe – full stop. For them, no rebalancing of powers will ever be enough. And so there is no hard border between repatriation and exit... Because, for these people, repatriation is pulling at a thread – and they want to unravel the whole thing. Just look at the last few weeks: As soon as we start talking about repatriation, we descend into the in-versus-out debate.
And heading to the exit would be the surest way to diminish the UK. Because what then? Become the next Norway or Switzerland? Advocates of repatriation point to these nations and say they have the best of both worlds: Access to Europe’s markets... without an assault on their sovereignty. But these countries sit and wait for bills and Directives from Brussels... duly paying their bit, changing their laws... But with absolutely no say over Europe’s rules: No political representation; no national voting rights; no voice at all. They work by fax democracy: You find your instructions on the machine in the morning, and you follow them. They have no meaningful sovereignty in the EU. To go down that route would be a catastrophic loss of sovereignty for this nation.
Those who advocate turning our back on our neighbours… seem to think we have a ready-made web of alternative alliances… A set of international agreements with other countries that could readily sustain us. But that isn’t how it works. The Commission has just confirmed, for example, that if the UK suddenly left the EU… we would instantly lose access to every EU trade agreement with a third party. Agreements with 46 countries are in place, and agreements with a further 78 are under negotiation. Our membership of the EU gives us access to all of them. And that includes almost every Commonwealth country.
The best - and most realistic - choice for the United Kingdom is to stand tall in our European hinterland; for the sake of our security, our prosperity and our place in the world.
© Liberal Democrats
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