Dr Fox Debates EU Referendum Bill

Dr Fox debates EU Referendum Bill Speaking in the House of Commons Chamber on Tuesday 9th June 2015 in the EU Referendum Bill, The Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP said: 

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Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con):

It is a great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on his maiden speech, which was clear, generous and strong. I am sure that he will make quite a mark in the House of Commons, and I wish him the best of fortune and good health as he enjoys his career here.

Today is a day that we, as democrats, should be celebrating, because we are redressing one of the great democratic deficits in our country. No one in this country who is under the age of 58—happily including myself—has been able to have a say on our membership of the European Union. The world is very different from how it was in 1975 when my parents campaigned on opposite sides of the European question. Then, Britain was the sick man of Europe, with chronic high inflation and with state-owned industries bleeding us dry. It was dominated by the trade union barons. We looked at Europe as a sign of economic success. We looked at Germany and said, “Let’s have a little bit of that!”

But let us look at how Germany and the rest of Europe have changed today, with the chronic crisis in the euro threatening global financial stability and condemning millions of young Europeans to chronic high levels of unemployment. Europe was at the centre of a very different world in 1975. In the middle of the cold war, political interest lay in Europe and in its relationship with the United States and the communist bloc. Today, however, in the era of multi-polar globalisation, Europe finds itself increasingly diminished politically and economically. The choice in the referendum will therefore be made against a very different backdrop.

A question that is often asked, and has been asked in the debate today, is this: if people had known in 1975 what Europe would become, would they have made the same decision? When they joined the common market, they did not know that they were actually joining a mechanism that would have a ratchet effect, taking them nearer and nearer to the destination of ever-closer political union, with no means of redress. People in this country genuinely wanted to be able to co-operate with our European partners when it was in our mutual interest to do so, but they also wanted to keep separate the levers that we might need to use in Britain’s national interest, when that interest was different from that of our leading European partners.

Most people in this country today feel, deep down, that too many of our laws are made abroad, and that too many of the basic democratic decisions affecting the way in which we live are made beyond our shores. They feel that the British people have no means of redress. This is part of a process in which those who live under the law in this country have less and less ability to shape those laws themselves. We simply cannot continue with a European model that is failing systemically. We cannot continue on a 1950s trajectory that is unyielding and unbending. If the European Union ultimately breaks, it will be because it cannot face up to the changing realities of the era in which we live.

Most people in this country do not believe that we should leave the European Union, whatever the circumstances; nor do they believe that we should stay in, whatever the circumstances. Instead, they believe that we should take a rational decision based on whatever renegotiation is achieved by the Prime Minister and the Government. They believe that we should take a rational view, and that we should have reform of all the European Union. This is key: it is not enough simply to change Britain’s relationship with the European Union; we need fundamental change in the Union itself. Unless we get that change, Europe will continue to go in the wrong direction. If we only change Britain’s membership, we will be negotiating a better membership deal for a bad club, and that is not in the long-term interests of the country.

John Redwood:

Do not most British people still want what many of them wrongly thought that they were voting for in 1975? They wanted a trade-based relationship with political co-operation when it is in our interests, and they did not want to join a superstate in the making.

Dr Fox:

My right hon. Friend is perfectly correct. People in this country wanted to join a common market and wanted an economic and trading entity. Many who voted in that referendum believe that by stealth they were sold a pup by being sold into a very different entity on which they were never allowed to give their opinion. That is why we should celebrate what is happening in the Chamber today. We are allowing those people to have a voice, which they have been denied by Governments of both political complexions for many years.

Kate Hoey:

I agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but will he also reflect on the fact that there are many people within the Labour movement who feel much the same as he does? I refer him to the leaflet from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), “The European Union—A View From The Left”, which is well worth reading—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Hoyle):

Order. I think the message has been received.

Dr Fox:

Across the political spectrum in this country, many people believe we have been denied a genuine debate about the future of the country. Those people might come from different sides of the debate, but they have in common a profound belief in our democratic process and the right of the people to be heard rather than being involved in a cosy stitch-up by the political establishment of this country, which is what has happened over too many years. As well as needing profound change in the European Union and in Britain’s relationship with Europe—the question of sovereignty—we need to ensure that any of those changes are enshrined in treaty. As for the points that we cannot have that because it is impossible or that we are only demanding it because it makes the process more difficult, which have been made so far in the debate, let me say to the House that any changes or guarantees that are not entrenched in treaty will not be worth the paper they are written on. The European Court will continue to determine any elements according to the concept of and drive towards ever-closer union. That is why the process needs to be followed in that way.

We in this country are different from our European partners in many ways. That does not mean that we are in any sense better, but we are different. We have a very different concept of sovereignty that is deeply entrenched in our history. We have a different concept of what our democracy is and how it operates and we are one of the few countries, perhaps the only country, in the European Union that never felt the need to bury our 20th-century history in a pan-European project. We are different from so many different perspectives and the one thing with the European Union with which I have the greatest problem is those three words: “ever-closer union”. I do not believe in ever-closer union, because for me the logical endpoint of ever-closer union is union and I do not want to lose our status as a sovereign independent nation to be part of a union in which the union comes first and the nation states come second. That is why this is so fundamental.

Some of us still bear the scars of 1992. That is why we must not rush into the referendum. We must ensure that we have adequate debate and that people do not feel that they have been bounced, or the result will not be as binding as we would like it to be. Finally, the behaviour with which we conduct ourselves is crucial, and I say this especially to my own colleagues. We will have to work together after the referendum is over. How we conduct ourselves, the language we use and how we speak of and to one another will be fundamental to our ability to pull ourselves back as a united party after the referendum. We might do this passionately, but we should do it with tolerance and decency and how we treat one another will influence the judgment of the country on us all.

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