2016 03 – Parliamentary Notes

Parliament Notes

by Dick Barry

Cameron’s EU ‘Reforms’

On 22 February David Cameron made a statement to the Commons on the agreement of terms on UK membership of the EU. His statement and Jeremy Corbyn’s reply are published below.

The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron):

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the agreement reached in Brussels last week, but first let me say a word about the migration crisis which was also discussed at the European Council. We agreed we needed to press ahead with strengthening the EU’s external borders to ensure that non-refugees are returned promptly, and to back the new mission to disrupt the criminal gangs working between Greece and Turkey, who are putting so many people’s lives at risk. I made it clear that Britain will continue to contribute, and will step up our contribution, in all these areas.

Turning to Britain’s place in Europe, I have spent the past nine months setting out the four areas where we need reform, and meeting all the other 27 EU Heads of State and Government to reach an agreement that delivers concrete reforms in all four areas. Let me take each in turn.

First, British jobs and British business depend on being able to trade with Europe on a level playing field, so we wanted: new protections for our economy; to safeguard the pound; to promote our industries, including our financial services industries; to protect British taxpayers from the costs of problems in the eurozone; and to ensure that we have a full say over the rules of the single market while remaining outside the eurozone. We got all those things. We have not just permanently protected the pound and our right to keep it, but ensured that we cannot be discriminated against. Responsibility for supervising the financial stability of the UK will always remain in the hands of the Bank of England. We have ensured that British taxpayers will never be made to bail out countries in the eurozone. We have made sure that the eurozone cannot act as a bloc to undermine the integrity of the free trade single market and we have guaranteed British business will never face any discrimination for being outside the eurozone. So, for example, our financial services firms—our No. 1 services export, employing over a million people—can never be forced to relocate inside the eurozone if they want to undertake complex trades in euros, just because they are based in the UK.

These protections are not just set out in a legally binding agreement. All 28 member states were also clear that the treaties would be changed to incorporate the protections for the UK as an economy inside the EU but outside the eurozone. We also agreed a new mechanism to enable non-eurozone countries to raise issues of concern, and we won the battle to ensure that this could be triggered by one country alone. Of course, none of these protections would be available if we were to leave the EU.

Secondly, we wanted commitments to make Europe more competitive, creating jobs and making British families more financially secure. Again, we got them. Europe will complete the single market in key areas that will really help Britain: in services, making it easier for thousands of UK service-based companies, like IT firms, to trade in Europe; in capital, so UK start-ups can access more sources of finance for their businesses; and in energy, allowing new suppliers into our energy market, meaning lower energy bills for families across the country.

We have secured commitments to complete trade and investment agreements with the fastest growing and most dynamic economies around the world, including the USA, Japan and China, as well as our Commonwealth allies India, New Zealand and Australia. These deals could add billions of pounds and thousands of jobs to our economy every year. And, of course, they build on the deals we already have with 53 countries around the world through which Britain has benefited from the negotiating muscle that comes from being part of the world’s largest trading bloc.

Country after country has said to me that of course they could sign trade deals with Britain, but they also said that their priority would be trade deals with the EU. By their nature, these EU deals would be bigger and better, and a deal with Britain would not even be possible until we had settled our position outside the EU. So, for those Members who care about signing new trade deals outside the EU, we would be looking at years and years of delay.

Last but by no means least, on competitiveness one of the biggest frustrations for British business is the red tape and bureaucracy, so we agreed there will now be targets to cut the total burden of EU regulation on business. This builds on the progress we have already made, with the Commission already cutting the number of new initiatives by 80%. It means that the cost of EU red tape will be going down, not up.

Of course, if we were to leave the EU but ultimately achieve a deal with full access to the single market, like Norway, we would still be subject to all of the EU’s regulation when selling into Europe—but with no say over the rules. As the former Europe spokesman for the Norwegian Conservative party said:

“If you want to run Europe, you must be in Europe. If you want to be run by Europe, feel free to join Norway in the European Economic Area.”

Thirdly, we wanted to reduce the very high level of migration from within the EU by preventing the abuse of free movement and preventing our welfare system from acting as a magnet for people to come to our country. After the hard work of the Home Secretary, we have secured new powers against criminals from other countries, including powers to stop them coming here in the first place, and powers to deport them if they are already here. We agreed longer re-entry bans for fraudsters and people who collude in sham marriages, and an end to the frankly ridiculous situation where EU nationals can avoid British immigration rules when bringing their families from outside the EU.

This agreement broke new ground, with the European Council agreeing to reverse decisions from the European Court of Justice. We have also secured a breakthrough agreement for Britain to reduce the unnatural draw that our benefits system exerts across Europe. We have already made sure that EU migrants cannot claim the new unemployment benefit, universal credit, while looking for work. Those coming from the EU who have not found work within six months can now be required to leave. At this Council, we agreed that EU migrants working in Britain can be prevented from sending child benefit home at UK rates. This will apply first to new claimants, and then to existing claimants from the start of 2020.

We also established a new emergency brake so that EU migrants will have to wait four years until they have full access to our benefits. People said it was impossible to achieve real change in this area and that a four-year restriction on benefits was completely out of the question—yet that is what we have done. Once activated, the emergency brake will be in place for seven years. If it begins next year, it will still be operating in 2024 and there will be people who will not get full benefits until 2028. All along, we have said that people should not be able to come here and get access to our benefits system straight away—no more something for nothing, and that is what we have achieved.

I am sure that the discussion about welfare and immigration will be intense, but let me make this point. No country outside the EU has agreed full access to the single market without accepting paying into the EU and accepting free movement. In addition, our new safeguards lapse if we vote to leave the EU, so we might end up with free movement but without these new protections.

The fourth area in which we wanted to make significant changes was to protect our country from further European political integration and to increase powers for our national Parliament. Ever since we joined, Europe has been on the path to something called ever closer union. It means a political union. We have never liked it; we have never wanted it. Now Britain will be permanently and legally excluded from it. The text says that the treaties will be changed to make it clear that

“the Treaty references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.”

So as a result of this negotiation, Britain can never be part of a European superstate.

The Council also agreed that ever closer union, which has been referred to in previous judgments of the European Court of Justice, does not offer a legal basis for extending the scope of any provisions of the treaties or EU secondary legislation. People used to talk about a multi-speed Europe; now we have a clear agreement that different countries are not only travelling at different speeds but ultimately heading to different destinations. I would argue that is fundamental change in the way this organisation works.

We have also strengthened the role of this House and all national Parliaments. We have already passed a referendum Act—the European Union Referendum Act 2015—to make sure that no powers can be handed to Brussels without the explicit consent of the British people in a referendum. Now, if Brussels comes up with legislation that we do not want, we can get together with other Parliaments and block it with a red card. We have a new mechanism finally to enforce the principle that, as far as possible, powers should sit here in Westminster, not in Brussels, so now, every year, the European Union must go through the powers that it exercises and work out which are no longer needed and should be returned to nation states.

In recent years, we have seen attempts to bypass our opt-out on justice and home affairs by bringing forward legislation under a different label. For example, attempts to interfere with the way the UK authorities handle fraud were made under the guise of EU budget legislation. The agreement at last week’s Council ensures that that can never happen again.

The reforms that we have secured will be legally binding in international law, and will be deposited as a treaty at the United Nations. They cannot be unpicked without the agreement of Britain and every other EU country. As I have said, all 28 member states were also clear that the treaties would be changed to incorporate the protections for the UK as an economy outside the eurozone, and our permanent exclusion from ever closer union.

Our special status means that Britain can have the best of both worlds. We will be in the parts of Europe that work for us, influencing the decisions that affect us, in the driving seat of the world’s biggest single market, and with the ability to take action to keep our people safe; but we will be out of the parts of Europe that do not work for us. We will be out of the euro, out of the eurozone bailouts, out of the passport-free, no-borders Schengen area, and permanently and legally protected from ever being part of an ever closer union.

Of course, there is still more to do. I am the first to say that there are still many ways in which this organisation needs to improve, and the task of reforming Europe does not end with last week’s agreement. However, with the special status that this settlement gives us, I do believe the time has come to fulfil another vital commitment that the Government made, and hold a referendum. Today I am commencing the process set out under our European Union Referendum Act to propose that the British people decide our future in Europe through an in/out referendum on Thursday 23 June. The Foreign Secretary has laid in both Houses a report setting out the new settlement that the Government have negotiated. That fulfils the duty to publish information which is set out in section 6 of the European Union Referendum Act. As the Cabinet agreed on Saturday, the Government’s position will be to recommend that Britain remain in a reformed European Union.

This is a vital decision for the future of our country, and I believe we should also be clear that it is a final decision. An idea has been put forward that if the country voted to leave, we could have a second renegotiation and perhaps another referendum. I will not dwell on the irony that some people who want to vote to leave apparently want to use a “leave” vote to remain, but such an approach also ignores more profound points about democracy, diplomacy and legality. This is a straight democratic decision—staying in or leaving—and no Government can ignore that. Having a second renegotiation followed by a second referendum is not on the ballot paper. For a Prime Minister to ignore the express will of the British people to leave the EU would be not just wrong, but undemocratic.

On the diplomacy, the idea that other European countries would be ready to start a second negotiation is for the birds. Many are under pressure for what they have already agreed. Then there is the legality. I want to spell out this point carefully, because it is important. If the British people vote to leave, there is only one way to bring that about, namely to trigger article 50 of the treaties and begin the process of exit, and the British people would rightly expect that to start straight away. Let me be absolutely clear about how this works. It triggers a two-year time period to negotiate the arrangements for exit. At the end of this period, if no agreement is in place, then exit is automatic unless every one of the 27 other EU member states agrees to a delay.

And we should be clear that this process is not an invitation to re-join; it is a process for leaving. Sadly, I have known a number of couples who have begun divorce proceedings, but I do not know any who have begun divorce proceedings in order to renew their marriage vows.

I want to explain what happens with section 50. We should also be clear about what would happen if that deal to leave was not done within two years. Our current access to the single market would cease immediately after two years were up; our current trade agreements with 53 countries around the world would lapse. This cannot be described as anything other than risk, uncertainty and a leap in the dark that could hurt working people in our country for years to come. This is not some theoretical question; this is a real decision about people’s lives. When it comes to people’s jobs, it is simply not enough to say that it will be all right on the night and we will work it out, and I believe that in the weeks to come we need to properly face up to the economic consequences of a choice to leave.

I believe that Britain will be stronger, safer and better off by remaining in a reformed European Union: stronger because we can play a leading role in one of the world’s largest organisations from within, helping to make the big decisions on trade and security that determine our future; safer because we can work with our European partners to fight cross-border crime and terrorism; and better off because British business will have full access to the free trade single market, bringing jobs, investment and lower prices.

There will be much debate about sovereignty, and rightly so. To me, what matters most is the power to get things done for our people, for our country and for our future. Leaving the EU may briefly make us feel more sovereign, but would it actually give us more power, more influence and a greater ability to get things done? If we leave the EU, will we have the power to stop our businesses being discriminated against? No. Will we have the power to insist that European countries share with us their border information so we know what terrorists and criminals are doing in Europe? No, we won’t. Will we have more influence over the decisions that affect the prosperity and security of British families? No we won’t.

We are a great country, and whatever choice we make we will still be great. But I believe the choice is between being an even greater Britain inside a reformed EU and a great leap into the unknown. The challenges facing the west today are genuinely threatening: Putin’s aggression in the east; Islamist extremism to the south. In my view, this is no time to divide the west. When faced with challenges to our way of life, our values and our freedoms, this is a time for strength in numbers.

And let me end by saying this: I am not standing for re-election; I have no other agenda than what is best for our country. I am standing here today telling you what I think. My responsibility as Prime Minister is to speak plainly about what I believe is right for our country, and that is what I will do every day for the next four months. And I commend this statement to the House.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab):

I thank the Prime Minister for advance notice of this statement. It obviously took him a long time to write it, because I only received it at eight minutes past 3 this afternoon. The people of Britain now face an historic choice on 23 June on whether to remain part of the European Union or to leave. We welcome the fact that it is now in the hands of the people of this country to decide that issue. The Labour party and the trade union movement are overwhelmingly for staying in because we believe that the European Union has brought investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment, and we are convinced that a vote to remain is in the best interests of the people.

In the 21st century, as a country and as a continent—and, indeed, as a human race—we face some challenging issues: how to tackle climate change; how to address the power of global corporations; how to ensure that they pay fair taxes; how to tackle cybercrime and terrorism; how we trade fairly and protect jobs and pay in an era of globalisation; how we address the causes of the huge refugee movements across the world; and how we adapt to a world where people of all countries move more frequently to live, work and retire. All these issues are serious, pressing and self-evidently can be solved only by international co-operation.

The European Union will be a vital part of how we, as a country, meet those challenges, so it is therefore more than disappointing that the Prime Minister’s deal has failed to address a single one of those issues. Last week, like him, I was in Brussels meeting Heads of Government and leaders of European Socialist parties, one of whom said to me—[Hon. Members: “Who are you?”] [Laughter.]No. What they said—[Interruption.] The Conservative party might care to think for a moment about what is going on. One person said to me, and I thought it was quite profound, “We are discussing the future of a continent and one English Tory has reduced it to the issue of taking away benefits”—from workers and children. The reality is that this entire negotiation has not been about the challenges facing our continent or about the issues facing the people of Britain. Indeed, it has been a theatrical sideshow about trying to appease—or failing to appease—half of the Prime Minister’s own Conservative party.

That is not to say that there have not been some worthwhile changes. The red card system to strengthen the hands of national Parliaments is something that we on the Labour Benches have long backed. Indeed, it was in the Labour manifesto for the last general election; it was not in the Conservative manifesto, but we welcome a conversion when it takes place. We also welcome the symbolic amendment on ever-closer union. Britain’s long-standing decision not to join the euro or Schengen has been settled and accepted a long time ago. However, we see the influence of Tory party funders on the Prime Minister’s special status not for Britain but for City of London interests. It is the same incentive that caused his friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to rush to Europe with an army of lawyers to oppose any regulation of the grotesque level of bankers’ bonuses. It is necessary to protect the rights of non-eurozone states, but not to undermine EU-wide efforts to regulate the financial sector, including the boardroom pocket stuffing in the City of London.

Labour stands for a different approach. That is why our Members of the European Parliament are opposing the dangerous elements of the very secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which threatened to undermine national sovereignty, push the privatisation of public services, and drive down standards for workers, consumers, the environment and public health. Human rights ought to be part of that treaty. Indeed, I believe they should be a feature of all trade treaties.

Then there is the so-called emergency brake. We support the principle of fair contribution to social security, however, the evidence does not back up the claim that in-work benefits are a significant draw for workers who come to Britain from the European Union. The changes that the Prime Minister has secured do nothing to address the real challenges of low pay in Britain and the undercutting of local wage rates and industry-wide pay agreements. They will not put a penny in the pockets of workers in Britain, stop the grotesque exploitation of many migrant workers or reduce inward migration to Britain.

Will the Prime Minister tell us what discussions he had to get European rules in place to protect the going rate and to stop agencies bringing in cheap labour to undercut workers in Britain while exploiting the migrant force? Did he speak to other EU leaders about outlawing the so-called “Swedish derogation” from the agency workers directive, which threatens to undermine one of the key achievements of the last Labour Government by allowing unscrupulous employers to use temporary agency staff to undercut other workers? Those would have been positive and worthwhile discussions to tackle low pay, reduce in-work benefit costs and protect workers. We must, on all sides, be clear that Britain has benefited from migration—from EU workers coming to work in our industry and in our public services to fill gaps. For example, I think of the thousands of doctors and nurses who work in our NHS, saving lives every day they are at work.

The European Union has delivered protection for workers in Britain. It was Labour that made sure that Britain’s EU membership gave workers rights to minimum paid leave; protection on working time; rights for agency workers; paid maternity and paternity leave; equal pay; anti-discrimination laws; and protection for the workforce when companies change ownership It was Labour, working in partnership with sister parties and unions across Europe, that made sure the Prime Minister’s attempt to diminish workers’ rights was kept off the agenda for these EU negotiations. Labour has supported moves to reduce child benefit to non-resident children as a reasonable amendment, but we also welcome the protection for existing migrants until 2020, so that families have stability of income.

The Prime Minister’s deal includes elements we welcome and others that concern us, but it is largely irrelevant to the choice facing the British people; not one single element has a significant impact on the case we will be making to stay in. We welcome the fact that this theatrical sideshow is over, so that we can now get on with making the real case, which will be put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who will be leading our campaign. Labour believes the EU is a vital framework for European trade and co-operation in the 21st century. A vote to remain is in the interests of people, not only for what the EU delivers today, but as a framework through which we can achieve much more in the future. But to deliver these progressive reforms that I have referred to, we need to work with our partners in Europe, and therefore we must ensure that Britain remains a member. That is the case we are going to be making—it is for a Europe that is socially cohesive, and a Europe that shares the benefits of wealth and prosperity among all its citizens. That is the case we are making, as the Labour party, as the trade union movement in this country, and we look forward to that public debate.

The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He and I disagree on many, many things—economic policy, social policy, welfare policy and even the approach we should take within Europe, as he has just demonstrated in his response—but we do agree about one thing: Britain should be in there, fighting for a good deal for our country. I worry a little for him because he is going to be accused of all sorts of things, some of them fair, some of them unfair. I fear that if he takes this course, he will be accused of being a member of the establishment, and that would be the unfairest attack of all.

On what the right hon. Gentleman said about the deal, I will make two points about why he should welcome it. The first is that, as far as I can see, it implements almost every pledge on Europe in the Labour manifesto—I am looking at the former Labour leader when I say that. Labour pledged to complete the single market. It pledged “tougher budget discipline. It said

“we will ensure EU rules protect the interests of non-Euro members.”

That is absolutely right. The manifesto went on to say:

“People coming to Britain from the EU to look for work are expected to contribute to our economy, and to our society. So we will secure reforms to immigration and social security rules”.

I therefore hope Labour will welcome the things in this agreement. [Interruption.] I am just reminding my new friends what they said at the election. They said this:

“We will work to strengthen the influence national parliaments over European legislation, by arguing for a ‘red-card mechanism’ for member states”.

Excellent, that is another thing that has been achieved.

The right hon. Gentleman was unfair when he said that this deal was really all about Britain, and not about anyone else. The Slovakian Prime Minister said, good,

“the myth about ever-closer union has fallen.”

The Hungarian Prime Minister said:

“The UK managed to put an end to the practice of ‘creeping power withdrawal’ from national member states.”

Romano Prodi, the former President of the Commission, said this:

“The real consequence of the summit is extraordinarily important: Brussels has officially enshrined a multi-speed Europe.”

That is beneficial to Europe as well as to Britain.

Where I disagree profoundly with the right hon. Gentleman is that I think these trade deals are good for Britain and that the sooner we do the deal with America the better. He is wrong about financial services. There are more people working in financial services in our country outside the City of London than there are inside it. Crucially, what the single market means is that, with one establishment in Britain, we can trade throughout the European Union. If we lose that, we will see jobs going from Britain to other countries.

Let me end on a note of consensus. Labour Governments and Conservative Governments standing here have all had their difficulties with Europe. We have all wanted to get the budget down. We have all wanted to get powers returned. We have all found that, because of our love for this House of Commons and for British democracy, this process can sometimes be trying, but, at the end of the day, we have always known that, when it comes to our economy, prosperity and security, we are better off fighting from the inside.