Between now and June 23rd we will be bombarded by arguments about our EU membership, swamped by statistics from both sides. As this is the most significant choice that the public have had to make in a generation, it would be wrong if the referendum debate was dominated by sideshow issues like levels of child benefit for EU migrants, or the scare stories that have already begun to emerge, claiming that the UK could not thrive outside the EU.
I reject this and believe that a far more fundamental question is – are we a sovereign country, able to take our own decisions?
In recent decades, political engagement has slumped to alarming levels, and the lack of trust in our political institutions is evident. One reason for this has been the realisation that our Parliament is no longer the supreme decision maker and that EU regulations override our Parliament’s views.
To take an example that has arisen since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Whether you agree with the policy or not, I think that our Parliament should have the powers to decide whether or not to pursue the renationalisation of the railways. And yet EU rules greatly inhibit this, by instructing us that we must have a certain railway model, separating trains from the infrastructure. Despite the fact that many of our privatised rail franchises are part-owned by foreign governments, we do not have the right to insist that our government take over this important asset in the national interest. We cannot even reduce the VAT on sanitary products to zero.
Some who advocate remaining in the European Union believe that it is a modern and civilising force for good in the world, and that it counterbalances the increased strength of vast multinational businesses. I respect such idealism, but this rosy picture is demolished by the reality of what the EU has done in Greece and other countries that have found the Euro to be an unsustainable anchor on their economies. With the EU dictating terms on behalf of its central bankers, Greece saw a million people losing access to healthcare, with a massive increase in HIV cases, suicide and the return of malaria. This is not the social Europe of which some people dream, nor even a supportive body that helps out its weakest members. It is an organisation that cares, above all else, about pressing forward with its project of political and economic union, regardless of the impact that this has on people’s lives.
We are told that rather than losing our sovereignty, we have instead “pooled” it with the 27 other countries of the EU. I’m sorry, but I have no interest in the UK having any form of sovereignty over Bulgaria or Latvia. I went into politics to serve my constituents in Vauxhall, not to extend influence over people living on the other side of the continent. If they wish to pool their sovereignty, then so be it, but it does not follow that we must follow suit.
Of course, I believe in co-operation with our neighbours, and hope that this will actually be easier if we leave the EU – the resentments that have built up from our membership of this anti- democratic club could be put aside, and we could work together in a reasonable and adult fashion.
We would also be well placed to look again to the wider world for trading partners. The share of world output accounted for by the 28 current members of the EU has fallen from 30% to 17% from 1980 to 2015. Whilst continuing to trade with our EU neighbours, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is a good bet for the long term. As the process of globalisation raises the appetite and spending power of formerly developing countries, I find it extraordinary that we focus so much on diminishing markets rather than the economic powerhouses of the 21st century.
For those who say that we depend on the EU for our security, I point out that it is NATO that has kept peace in Europe for so many decades, and that our permanent membership of the UN Security Council and our place as the fifth largest economy in the world keeps us as a significant player. It is actually depressing to hear vested interests claim that without the EU we would simply be a small island in the North Atlantic. I know that if we do vote for Brexit, those same voices would have to look to our successful future, as they did when they were wrong about our joining the Euro.
So yes, the next few months will be full of claims and figures, but the underlying principles will not change, and I hope that the public takes the same optimistic view of our country that I do.