We represent three different parties and three different political philosophies. In our adversarial political culture, we have spent our careers disagreeing with one another about the big issues. But there is one that transcends the political divide: Britain’s future in Europe.
The choice facing us in June will determine the direction and status of our country for decades to come, deciding the basis on which UK businesses are able to trade with our largest and nearest partner; the employment opportunities available to workers; the prices in our shops; and whether we protect our national security and natural environment together with our neighbours, or apart, by ourselves.
Campaigners on both sides have a duty to be honest with the British publicand not to exaggerate: we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.
There is a particular problem with the Brexit campaign in as much as it involves different individuals who have clear but distinct views of what the alternative arrangements might be, which are more often than not inconsistent with each other. We are variously told that free of the shackles of Brussels we can have free markets, including free immigration, closed markets including less immigration, unrestrained capitalism or unrestrained socialism, a continued single market or an end to the single market.
The most widely promoted version of the leave campaign claims that Britain could retain its place in the EU’s free-trade single market while not paying a penny into the EU budget, ending free movement and ignoring EU rules. No other country has such a deal or anything close to it and the French and German governments have been clear that they will not make such an exception for Britain. They do not hesitate to remind us that the single market – involving not just free trade in goods and services but free movement of capital and labour – was a British idea (launched by Margaret Thatcher and implemented by Conservative, Labour and coalition governments).
One particularly dishonest claim is that the UK could enjoy continued membership of the single market, while abandoning contributions to the common budget. On the strength of this assumed saving a wild orgy of public spending and tax cuts is being promised. New analysis shows that the leave campaign has made 20 separate financial commitments, costing a staggering £83.6bn.
The leave campaigners claim that if Britain leaves Europe we will be able to fund new infrastructure projects, tax cuts, accelerated deficit reduction and bailouts for domestic industries. From boosting pensions by £18.25bn to cutting taxes by £7.9bn and filling in potholes to the tune of £53m, leave campaigners claim the solution to every domestic public policy challenge is to leave Europe.
But if Britain leaves Europe there is no guarantee that we would make a saving at all. Leave campaigners never acknowledge the billions we receive back from the EU in payments to British farming, support for our poorer regions and investment in scientific research, which is fundamental to EU universities. They forget the budget rebate won by Margaret Thatcher, which stands to this day. And other countries that belong to the single market but remain outside the EU, such as Norway and Switzerland, make net contributions on a per capita basis similar to the UK today.
There are of course costs as well as benefits to membership but Britain is clearly a net beneficiary. It has been plausibly estimated that the economic benefits arising from our membership are equivalent to around £3,000 a year to the average UK household – roughly ten times the net contribution.
Our membership of the single market attracts investment from around the world. The big British success stories in motor vehicles, pharmaceuticals, financial services and creative industries are based in significant part on overseas investors locating here and creating jobs, on the basis that they can trade freely within the EU single market. BMW, maker of Rolls-Royce and the Mini, has made it clear that its commitment to the UK rests on that continuing. And the EU creates greater competition between companies, which drives down costs for British consumers.
Britain can either be in the EU’s free-trade single market, with the tariff-free trade, regulatory influence and full market access this brings. Or we can have limited access, zero influence over regulation and risk tariffs. There is no alternative that provides equivalent benefits. Attempts to find one by exiting without an agreed alternative risks prolonged and damaging uncertainty and upheaval.
Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe. Together we will carry on making that patriotic case for our continued membership. We must reject the impossible promises of those whose obsession with leaving Europe blinds them to risks of cutting ourselves off from our partners and neighbours.