First Person: 'We will be safer, stronger and better off if we…

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This June voters in my Leicestershire constituency but across the whole United Kingdom too will take part in the most important democratic decision we have faced in a generation: whether to remain in a reformed European Union or to leave.

I was born in Germany, where my father, who had served throughout the Second World War, was in the British Army helping to protect newly democratic West Germany from Soviet totalitarianism. While the NATO forces of which he was a part were vital, the reconstruction of a Europe devastated by war would not have succeeded without the European institutions, which would evolve into the EU, that allowed France and Germany to reconcile. Our security is best served by a diplomatically and economically strong and united Europe, and a vote to leave would encourage those who wish us harm, including, tragically, international terrorists.

It is our economic interests, however, that are paramount in the context of this debate. The EU is our largest trading partner. It receives half of our exported goods and is the source of half our foreign investment. The EU represents a single market of over 500 million people, whose common rules and standards ensure our exporters benefit from a level playing field.

If we vote to leave, we risk losing access to that market. Brexit campaigners are confident that we can do a deal in the two years we would have to conclude negotiations. They claim that because we sell more to the continental states of the EU than they sell to us, they would have a strong incentive to cooperate. But they use the wrong figures. What matters to the rest of the EU is not how much they sell compared to the total size of our trade, but how much they sell compared to the total size of theirs. While the rest of the EU accounts for half of ours, we only account for around a sixth of theirs: so the boot very much risks being on the other foot.

In contrast, the new settlement that the Prime Minister has negotiated gives our country a special status in the EU. It keeps us inside the single market, worth some £500 billion each year to British businesses, while carving us out of “ever closer union.” It ensures we can use the European Arrest Warrant to bring criminals to justice while keeping us out of the Schengen border-free area. It gives our financial services industry the right to sell its services across the EU, but allows us to keep the pound and out of the Euro.

This settlement gives us the best of both worlds: we stay in the parts of the EU that work for us, and keep out out of those that do not. We would have to be very sure of the alternative before throwing such an advantageous position away.

No one I respect says the EU is perfect and beyond further reform but Brexit campaigners are anything but clear. They have not only failed to identify what kind of relationship with the EU they would like; they offer no plausible way of getting it. Some would like us be like Norway but Norway has to accept the free movement of people, pay into the EU budget, pay tariffs on its agricultural exports, implement EU regulations without having a say in their formulation, and comply with the rulings of a body known as the “EFTA Surveillance Authority.”

Others would prefer the Swiss option: but the Swiss arrangement excludes financial services – our biggest industry – and would still require us to pay in to the budget and accept free movement. Still others suggest we should copy the deal the Canadians have with the EU. That’s a good deal for Canada, 3,000 miles away, but not for us – we are only 22 miles across the Channel, and our deep business ties with continental Europe would be disrupted if we negotiated a Canada-style arrangement. The most bullish Brexit advocates even think we could do without any trade deal at all: but that would mean having to accept tariffs (as high as ten per cent for cars) and crippling our manufacturing sector, one of the economic engines of the East Midlands.

Can we be certain we would be able to secure any of these deals? The German Finance Minister has warned that to regain access to the single market we would have to pay in and accept the free movement of people (if so, what would be the point of leaving?); the European Commission had made clear it would not negotiate another Swiss-style arrangement; while the EU-Canada trade agreement has taken seven years to negotiate and is still not in place. The risk of having to rely on World Trade Organisation rules, and the tariffs they allow other countries to impose on us, is very real.

This uncertainty is why members of every business organisation, from the CBI, to the Institute of Directors, British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses, all support remaining in a reformed EU.

Like them, I believe that the choice is clear: if we remain, we will be safer, stronger and better off than we would be if we left. That is why I urge you to vote to stay in the EU on June 23.

Sir Edward Garnier QC is the MP for Harborough

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