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EU Referendum: Let’s answer the actual question we are asked

February 18, 2016 8:22 AM
By Nick Hopkinson in Lib Dem Voice

Nick HopkinsonThe European Referendum question asks "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" Voters are not being asked whether we accept David Cameron's renegotiation proposals or the (draft) European Council Agreement. Nor are we being asked our opinion on the crises in the Eurozone and Schengen areas.

So let us answer the actual question we are being asked.

Just as Wilson's 1975 renegotiation was promptly forgotten during the 1975 referendum campaign, we need to put Cameron's renegotiation behind us. Both were risky exercises to paper over splits within their respective parties. Although Cameron's renegotiation is subject to greater public scrutiny than in 1975, the referendum question does not ask us to unpick, let alone approve, it. The Leavers cite the Eurozone and Schengen crises as main reasons why we should leave the EU, yet we are not members of either group. How can we leave groups we aren't part of?

We are being asked whether we should remain in EU areas in which we do participate. As Liberal Democrats, we know our EU membership benefits us. As part of the world's largest market, UK firms can export freely to more than 500 million affluent consumers. Each UK household is better off by a net £2,660 per annum in terms of more jobs and foreign investment (CBI, 2013). If we leave, Credit Suisse recently predicted a recession with a 1-2% drop in GDP.

Alone the UK, the world's fifth largest economy with 2% of global GDP, would have less weight in international trade negotiations. The UK would be a less attractive destination for foreign investment as we are no longer part of the world's largest market with 30% of global GDP.

The UK influences and agrees all applicable EU legislation through the participation of our elected ministers in the EU Council and elected members in the European Parliament. Non-members such as Norway and Switzerland have to adopt EU legislation, full free movement and pay just under what we do for access to the Single Market. Do we want to pay and have no say? If we vote leave, we lose control.

With NATO, the EU has contributed to spreading peace, prosperity and democracy in Europe. Armed conflict between any EU state is now unthinkable. The UK cannot combat international crime and terrorism, and climate change alone. EU regulation curbs banking excesses, reduces consumer prices, and tax avoidance. EU social legislation provides for more holidays, maternity rights, equal pay and a safer working environment.

A vote to leave the EU would throw the future of the UK into doubt. The SNP would likely win a second Scottish independence referendum and the Northern Ireland peace process could be undermined. Our global influence would diminish. The EU without the UK and EU neighbours might be even more susceptible to destabilisation by a resurgent Russia.

The leavers are unable to offer, let alone agree, a viable alternative to EU membership. We know what Remain looks like (the present) but we do not know what leave looks like. Eurosceptics are calling for an uncertain leap into the dark. Lib Dems need to broaden the debate and campaign on these merits of remaining in. By answering the referendum question, we increase the chances of remaining in and help build the Fightback.

* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.