David Davis writes for the Sunday Times: Either we vote early on EU exit or we watch Farage crow


David Davis writes for the Sunday Times:
Either we vote early on EU exit or we watch Farage crow

Why is it that political parties cannot debate key policy issues properly before the elections they might influence? MPs fear accusations of disunity as newspapers write headlines about “splits”, so the entire political class sinks into a conspiracy of silence. Nowhere is this more true than over Europe in the run-up to the European elections.

But now that those elections are over, it is time for the government to press the reset button on its European policy. It is time for the government — and the opposition for that matter — to reconsider a decision that will determine the future of this nation state for generations to come.

As it stands, we appear to be moving crab-like towards a referendum in 2017, without a clearly articulated set of strategic negotiating aims that might make it worthwhile to stay in the EU, or a clear vision of what we will do if the people decide they want to leave.

The government’s insistence that it intends to recommend an “in” vote, without any clear conditions, has robbed its policy of both clarity and credibility. That is no doubt one of the reasons Lord Lawson described the likely outcome of the negotiation as “inconsequential”.

So what should we do? We should start by bringing the referendum forward to 2016. The reform negotiation has barely got under way, precisely because the date is so distant. Similarly, the European powers are hardly taking it seriously.

Anyone who has dealt with the Europeans knows that the years before a negotiation are little more than a “phoney war”. It is only in the last months, days or even hours that the decisions are taken. Bringing the date forward will signal a greater sense of determination to our European partners.
It will also transform the negotiation if Britain decides to leave the EU. The EU is required to negotiate exit terms within two years with any nation that decides to leave. If the British people reach that conclusion in 2017, we will still be scrambling out of the exit negotiations as we run into the subsequent election.

But if Britain decides to leave in the first half of 2016, we will have two years to negotiate, and then two more years for our new global trading strategy work.

That matters. Despite bloodcurdling threats from Brussels and Paris, we will get a European deal that will be at least as good in trade terms as that we enjoy now. Look at Switzerland, which did a stunningly good deal with a fraction of our clout, including defending its financial services, as we would have to defend the City. But it will take two years to deliver.

Even more important, Britain’s exit could initiate an era of vast new trading opportunities — opportunities with a world growing at more than 6% a year rather than the eurozone, which is shrinking by 1%. The government of the day will need to create a pro-enterprise, pro-employment culture that will encourage the private sector to seek business far beyond our borders. It will only work if the exit engenders an outward-looking “global Britain”, not an introverted “little England”. Bringing the decision forward will give the next parliament two full years to deliver that.

By itself this is not enough, of course. UKIP’s expected romp to victory this evening will happen because a large number of British citizens believe their political elites have failed to deal with the great issues of the age.

Most prominent among these has been immigration, the inability to control our borders. On election day, with orchestral precision, the government released the stunning figure of 201,000 immigrants from Europe last year, an increase of 43,000. The last government lost control of immigration, and the current one has failed to bring it back under control.

The principal reason has been the EU’s commitment to the free movement of peoples as a fundamental tenet of policy. It is a fine aim, but under current conditions it has dangerous side effects.

When the Rome treaty, permitting free movement of workers, was signed in 1957 its six signatories had a broadly similar standard of living. But with 28 countries now in the EU, including post-Soviet countries, the differences in living standards across the bloc have become extreme. Last year Romania’s average wage was less than a fifth of the UK’s.

This creates a huge incentive for large numbers of people to move to places such as Britain. It robs developing countries of their best and brightest as they migrate in search of higher wages, as well as creating social problems here.

The current transitional arrangements prevent new EU members from accessing the full range of treaty rights for up to seven years. This does not work. What we need is a system based on reaching targets for living standards instead. For example, Romanian workers should not have been granted treaty rights to move to Britain until the average wage in Romania was at least 50% of the UK’s.

The presumption that all countries are equal, while admirable on one level, is the root of many of our problems with the EU. We are all different, and few more different than Britain, with our long tradition of democracy and justice.

The European arrest warrant grants other members’ legal systems authority over British citizens. Behind it is a presumption that other justice systems are as developed and fair as our own.

Sadly this is not true. There have been some miscarriages of justice, and we will no doubt face more. Frankly that is not tolerable for a country with a commitment to justice as long-standing and deep-rooted as our own.

These are the sorts of areas where we should be seeking different arrangements with Brussels. They are over and above the torrent of business, employment, environmental, and health and safety regulations that pour out of Brussels every week, handicapping our businesses.

They are also over and above the fundamental problem with the EU, namely that it overrides our democracy. The most overwhelmingly important requirement of the negotiation is a mechanism whereby parliament can veto a decision of the EU. Without that, we could negotiate away every problem I have listed, only to find them all reimposed in a decade’s time.

No one should pretend these aims are easy to achieve. But if we do not articulate and embrace a clear vision of a radically reformed Europe, we will achieve little and Lawson’s prediction of an inconsequential negotiation will come true. If that happens, or indeed if the Europeans refuse to negotiate any serious changes, we must have a clear vision of how we will deliver a better future outside the EU. That will involve dramatic efforts to make our economy much more competitive, ranging from tax and regulatory liberalisation to investing the savings from our EU contributions in massive trade support and promotion centres around the fastest-growing capitals of the world.

One of the reasons the “anti-political class” movement is gathering such momentum is that voters do not believe we are facing up to issues with sufficient rigour, clarity or courage. They see us making minimalist promises, often only when under pressure from a pending election or backbench revolt. Right or wrong, it is a perception we must deal with. The key point is that the Conservative party has to decide pretty soon where its blue lines are and make them very clear.

I find it inconceivable that we will go through a general election without the public knowing where we stand on all these fundamental elements of our future position in the world.

We need to make these decisions in the national interest, but if a party establishment interest is needed, consider this: if we do not grasp this nettle, I can see the UKIP resurgence carrying all the way through to the general election.