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Speech in debate on the Prime Minister's EU statement

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith speech to the House of Lords

I thank the Noble Lady, the Leader of the House for repeating today’s statement, and which is so hugely significant for the future of our country and our place in the world.

My Lords, clearly anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the UK relationship with the EU was the only issue discussed at the European Council. It must be immensely frustrating for other countries that the issues such as migration, Syria and Libya have not received the same degree of interest as our referendum has. And perhaps that makes a profound point – because those are obviously issues where European and international co-operation are so absolutely vital and crucial.

But on our role within the EU, the Prime Minister is clearly relieved that a deal has been done and that he has been able to announce the date for the referendum. Although at times over the weekend it was all looking slightly dodgy.

We were told that following the completion of negotiations there would be an ‘English Breakfast’ on Friday morning where the deal would be finalised and then the PM would travel back for a Cabinet Meeting in the evening. But as that breakfast became brunch, and that brunch became lunch, and that lunch became dinner, it was clear that there were a few sticking points. And when we saw Angela Merkel rushing out for a bag of chips as sustenance we knew there was still some way to go.

Perhaps the Prime Minister may have thought he could starve them into submission?

My Lords, finally, the deal was announced – not exactly what he had asked for but that’s the nature of negotiation, as any experienced negotiator will confirm. And with changes of some significance that certainly cannot be dismissed as unimportant, although some have tried. Then for the first time since 1982, during the Falklands crisis, the Cabinet met on a Saturday.

There’s an historical connection here in that it was Harold Wilson who as the only Prime Minister until now to hold a referendum on the European issue, once said: “A week is a long time in politics.” Although his referendum campaign lasted half the time of ours. Well if a week is a long time, the next four months of campaigning are going to seem like an eternity.

There will be discussions, deliberation, and as leaflet after leaflet extolling the views of one campaign or another are handed out and posted through letterboxes, recycling bins will be full to overflowing.

My Lords, I predict some excellent debates and factually based communications that will inform and enlighten. I also predict nonsense, scaremongering and bad temper. And we’ll have some moments of pure theatre. The “will he, won’t he?” performance of Boris Johnson’s announcement last night was clearly designed to create the maximum spectacle and drama. He certainly succeeded in that, and he was obviously very aware of the deliberate impact on the Prime Minister.

But for most of us this issue has to be more than just about personalities and theatrics. It has to be more than who can shout the loudest or get the most celebrities signed up to their campaign. And more, so much more, than Mr Cameron’s ‘deal’.

Support for that view has come from surprising sources.  It was almost incredible to hear Chris Grayling on the radio yesterday morning saying it was a relief rather than difficult to declare his opposition because: “Many of us made up our minds weeks ago, but we did the right thing and let the Prime Minister continue his negotiations…”. The right thing? Whatever the Prime Minister returned with was never going to get the support of the very people, his Cabinet and his party, that he has been trying to please. 

When we had the previous statement on 2 February, I expressed our view that too much of the Prime Minister’s negotiating position had been targeted at his own internal party problems when the only objective must always be the national interest and the key issues that impact on everyday lives.

I’m not suggesting that his deal isn’t helpful – people will have their own views. But there are so many other issues that are crucial to the UK and to Europe that we should be taking a lead on, exerting our influence and trying to create the kind of EU that we take great pride in.

The Labour Party and Trade Unions played a strong role in ensuring that issues such as employment rights, guaranteed paid holidays, paid maternity leave and protection for agency workers were kept out of any renegotiation. Those rights are too important to be lost or weakened.

The same applies to consumer and environmental protections that have a real and tangible impact on many – if not all – of us.

From the cutting of data roaming costs for mobile and using the internet to the improvement of air passengers' rights. From clean beaches and bathing water, which are good for our well-being and also boost local economies, to how we deal with and dispose of waste. Thanks to EU legislation, we can all benefit.

Indeed, given that the air quality here in London – and other parts of the UK – continues to fall short of EU clean air standards, it would clearly have been more beneficial to the public health of our fellow citizens if the government had engaged more proactively on this front.

My Lords, I watched with incredulity yesterday as Iain Duncan Smith claimed that we would be safer out of the EU, as being part of it increased the threat of Paris Style terrorist attacks. Is this the same Iain Duncan Smith who supported the Government’s proposals to opt out of EU measures to deal with crime & policing, including terrorism – and then found along with the rest of his party that they had to opt back in to everything that actually worked? And why? Because it made us safer.

And for so long many Brexit campaigners have been telling us that EU citizens travel to the UK in order to get benefits – and then when the PM reaches an agreement to cut these the argument shifts to “it won’t make any difference.”

My Lords, as this campaign progresses let us have the kind of debate that can make us proud as a country and as a Parliament.

Let us try to recapture some of that vision and promise that was in the hearts and minds of those that first conceived that a way to peace and prosperity was a Europe – then divided and devastated by two wars – that would work together across common principles and values for the benefit of all citizens. Let us have a debate of vision and of facts.

We should recall that in 1961, our application for membership was vetoed because it was felt we’d be too dominant and powerful through our relationship with the Commonwealth and the US. Yet today maintain those strong and special relationships alongside our membership of the EU.

None of us claim that the EU is perfect. We all recognise where we think it has been weak and where change is needed. But wouldn’t it benefit this country if we could again be seen as a powerful figure on the European stage. A powerful country that could take a lead within Europe. Within an EU that works better for working people – that strengthens business, and brings ongoing and better reform.

Why shouldn’t we seek to build human rights, employment rights, consumer and environmental protections into future Europe wide trade treaties? And taking on workers from other countries should never be used as an excuse to drive down wages or disadvantage local workers.

Rather than merely seeking greater control for ourselves, why not seek to stop the pressure from Brussels to deregulate and sell-off public services. That’s a matter for national governments.

Why aren’t we pressing for a more humanitarian and strategic response to the thousands of refugees seeking asylum, and far too many losing their lives in the process.

My Lords, whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the EU will still exist – just 21 miles from the shores of Dover and across the border in the Republic of Ireland. That’s a fact of life. If we vote to leave we will still have to manage that reality. Our businesses – large and small – who want to trade within the EU will still have to abide by its regulations. Regulations that a United Kingdom will have no part in making.

During this referendum we will hear a lot of talk about sovereignty, about independence and about what it means to be a nation state in the ever-changing world of the 21st Century. We’ve also already heard about patriotism. And I so hope that neither side in this debate will seek to claim ownership of patriotism or denigrate anyone else’s.

As I said earlier in my remarks, I’m sure I speak for many members of Your Lordships House when I say that I hope the debate will be more informative and enlightening than misleading and ill tempered. But my plea is deeper than that.

Already today we’ve heard the news that the pound is falling in value. It’s partly the uncertainty of Brexit and it’s partly a Government that is now seen as divided and preoccupied. This makes the need for a constructive, positive debate not just important – but absolutely essential.  Four months is a long time. The Government must not be so preoccupied with this debate that it loses focus on other issues.

And the debate has to be about the future of the UK – not the future of the Conservative party, as entertaining as that may be. Because this is not about entertainment. This is a huge decision that faces each and every one of us. It is a real decision about people’s lives.

My Lords, the British people deserve a proper debate ahead of 23rd June. My party has set out its position clearly and with conviction and we look forward to making the case for a stronger, open and confident Britain remaining as a engaged, challenging and leading member of the EU.


Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Published 22nd February 2016

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