On 23 June you will be asked if you want to remain in the EU, or leave it. This will be one of the most important political decisions made for a generation. Many have asked me where I stand on our membership of the EU so I have set out the main issues in the debate.
I am not someone who believes that the EU is perfect, and would argue for reform. However, the only way we can really change Europe is from the inside. While the Prime Minister achieved a few minor changes over the last few weeks, having not engaged in such issues before, it just goes to show how a Prime Minister who took the EU seriously, and worked in a sustained way with other leaders across Europe, could really address concerns throughout the EU. Failure of political leadership in the UK to play a proper part in the EU should not be the test we use to stay in or leave.
First, we must recognise the stability that the EU has achieved. We now live in the longest sustained period of peace across the EU member states than in any time in our history. This has been brought about not only by greater co-operation but by the fact that all the nations have to sit together in the Parliament and Council of Ministers and work out solutions to problems together. A stable platform for dialogue, no matter how challenging the issues, is vital to maintain peace across the nations. It is also how we make progress on a global scale on all issues.
There are so many challenges facing Europe and our world at this time. It is therefore vital that there is space to work through these challenges and to find solutions together. Where countries are fragmented, then problems occur and it is harder to make progress on the outcomes we all want to see.
If we want to improve our intelligence and security, then working in an integrated EU is the best way we can crack down on international crime with full co-operation across nation states.
I want to take the issue of immigration as an example. I believe we can go a long way towards resolving the immigration crisis if we work together across Europe. Due to conflict, famine, disease, war and poverty, thousands of people are migrating, but people are moving for different reasons. If all the countries in Europe worked together they could not only achieve greater global stability but also address the issues that are causing migration. Together we can address the trade vacuum with developing countries and therefore generate local prosperity in some of the most challenged countries in the world. As a Labour and Co-operative MP I have seen the power of co-operatives in enabling better trade with the West in the developing world, making communities sustainable.
Each year the UK reaches abroad across the EU to ask people to come and work in key jobs. We have seen this with the shortage of dentists, nurses, plumbers, nuclear scientists, and so on. This has gone on for years, and I believe that this is the wrong approach. I believe that our government should invest in training enough staff for the services we need. Giving local people the opportunity to train in specialist areas, would cut the number of people we are asking to come to the UK for work.
Second, the government should close the loophole for agency workers to be employed to undercut local jobs. This is not an EU issue to solve, our government could close the loophole and deal with exploitative agencies who specifically employ people on worse terms and conditions to undercut British jobs. Such a simple step would really help the local jobs market and stop the race to the bottom of working conditions. With further reform around employment in Europe we could ensure that we have even better workers’ rights.
Third, we should control who comes into our country and who leaves. The cuts brought about by the 2010 government to the UK Border staff has made our borders insecure. As Labour, we are particularly concerned about our ports and the checks that occur there. All goods should be checked, so that we don’t only know who is coming into the country, but what. This is easily addressed by training more staff to work there.
Fourth, if people are in a crisis their lives are put at risk. They seek asylum. We should have agreement across all the countries in the EU to meet their needs. As a country our first aim should be to provide safe havens for people near to where they live. I find it appalling that Saudi Arabia for example, a major trading country with the UK and on the doorstep of the countries in crisis, are not supporting the genuine refugees of the conflict in the Middle East. With a stronger Europe we would have more leverage to make sure that other countries play their part. We would still be able to provide asylum to those in genuine need but with the confidence that our focus is on keeping people at risk near to their ‘home’. I know that this is not a major issue in York as we have not had an asylum seeker settled in the city for years, and will only be supporting a minimal number of Syrian refugees over the coming years, but these kind of steps will bring about solutions. When nations work together they can make a great difference.
As part of a progressive Europe we have the opportunity to shape the debate, to set the rules, to address the global challenges of our time. As an island outside of Europe we can merely pass comment, but have little control.
Fifth, if we do leave many of the 1.2 million British migrants living across the EU would have to return home. Unlike many of those who come to the UK, those living overseas are elderly and therefore there would be an immediate surge on our already stressed infrastructure of services like the NHS and social care. Many of those who are support workers and carers from Europe would have to leave the UK and go back to their country and, therefore, we would not have the staff to look after these people. We need to have an EU that works for those wanting to live overseas as well as those living at home. This provides choice for local people. The fact is that net migration has not been an issue, and even today far more is spent on state support for those living overseas than anywhere near what is spent on those who have travelled from across the EU to stay in the UK.
Being in Europe is also how we make progress on tackling serious global challenges such as climate change. If we take the outcomes of the Paris Conference on Climate Change, we can reach even further and provide even greater leverage if we work together on the issues confronting us. We can use resources to work on research and development to place the UK and the EU at the centre of new energy technologies, whether carbon capture or advancing the science behind renewable sources.
When it comes to jobs, we have to recognise that the world has massively changed in the 40 years since the last referendum on Europe. Global trade is now built on large negotiating blocks – the EU, the US, the Pacific countries, and so on. Outside of the EU, the UK would be a relatively small partner. The mainstay of our international economy includes financial services, which will look to centre itself in Frankfurt not London, should we withdraw from the EU. Other industries could also centre their business at the heart of the EU if we withdrew.
British businesses rely on the EU for exports worth £227 billion every year, with three million British jobs linked to trade with Europe. The UK has become an integrated part of the EU, whether our defence industry and closer collaboration with countries like France, the financial centre of the EU, and other forms of business from car manufacturing which has seen large investment in plants in the West Midlands, or our education system which is totally dependent on students from the EU. In fact the higher education sector have said that they cannot see a future without being part of the EU as most of the science and research funding comes from EU funds.
There are many areas which have really benefitted from the EU. Governments have opportunities to tap into resources in different funding pots including the European Social Funds, which support areas of deprivation. The UK has taken advantage of these funding streams, which has made such a difference to thousands of people across many communities. The UK Government has had the opportunity to draw down resources from the EU Solidarity Fund as a result of the floods to help York with its recovery.
Perhaps above all these factors, I am a strong supporter of the EU because it has massively improved the rights of ordinary people in our country. Discrimination laws have been enhanced due to the EU’s social platform. If we look at workers’ rights, you need only think that we achieved four weeks mandatory annual leave due to the social chapter. The Working Time Directive stopped UK workers working more than a 48-hour week and everything from disability rights to maternity and paternity rights have been enhanced. The potential of a social Europe is not yet realised and could form an exciting debate as we move forward in the light of growing inequality that we are witnessing across our communities.
I do want to see reform. I want to see the Parliament having more powers than the Commission. I want to see the EU Parliament located in just Brussels and not making the trip to Strasbourg every month. I want to see the UK citizens involved a lot more in what goes on in Europe and the decisions that are made in the Parliament. Unlike most EU countries, we hear little of what happens in the governance structures of the EU and rarely do we see the coverage of its Parliament. I want all these things to change.
Being part of Europe means that you can help change it, help shape it and change the rest of the world through it.
I hope that you will vote to remain in the European Union and be part of changing the EU for the next generation.