I campaigned for membership of the Common Market in 1975, but the cost of belonging to the EU has become too high
The campaign groups are in place, so it’s only a matter of time before we hear all the various arguments for and against Britain’s membership of the EU. At long last, the debate is beginning.
I remember the 1975 referendum clearly. In fact, I campaigned for a “Yes” vote. I walked the JCB factory floor, together with trade union representatives, explaining to employees that a “Yes” vote would be good for business and good for Britain. At the time, almost the entire business community felt the same. Tesco even printed carrier bags, urging shoppers to say “Yes to Europe!”
Back then, the Common Market was something I believed in. It was a major trading opportunity, giving us some extra muscle on the world stage. It looked like a pretty decent insurance policy. In 1975, Britain was a large country in an economic community of nine, mostly smaller countries, so we had a powerful voice. Like all member states, we also had a powerful weapon in our locker: the national veto.
Forty years on, I find myself thinking differently. There is a price we all pay for our EU membership – a financial price, a bureaucratic and regulatory price, as well as a political and constitutional price. In 1975, the price was worth paying. It felt like a sensible medium and long-term investment. Today, it just doesn’t.
It also frustrates me, and many others in industry, that the regulatory environment has become less business-friendly, especially for exporters. Of course, looking now at the benefits of membership, I would like to emphasise straight away that Europe is and, whatever happens, will always remain a very important market to countless British companies.
However, Europe isn’t where the growth is. In 1980, the 28 countries in the EU represented some 30 per cent of Gross World Product. By 2014, that had fallen to 17 per cent. Now the growth opportunities are in Asia, South America and in the Commonwealth countries. India or China are, in my view, far bigger single markets than the EU.
Our EU membership also comes with risks. We hear a lot about the risks of leaving the EU, but we do not hear enough about the risks of staying in. We do not have enough sovereign control over our own affairs now but will we have still less in the future? We are over-regulated now but will it become even more onerous?
Today, we are not in the Europe to which we said “Yes” in 1975. I wonder what it will turn into in the decades to come. The EU immigration crisis puts this question into sharp focus. In truth, I want Britain to remain in the EU, but not this EU. We need a Europe that thinks and works differently, or alternatively, we need to have a fundamentally different relationship. We need it to be less centralised, less intrusive and less bureaucratic.
We need the EU to be more business-friendly and export-friendly. We need it to look outward to where the growth is – or leave us free do to so. I do believe this can be secured.
We have secured major opt-outs in the past, from the euro and from Schengen. Opt-outs have proved vital to our national interests and I see no reason why we shouldn’t achieve opt-outs of similar magnitude now. Our continued membership of the EU is at stake and that membership is strongly in our partners’ interests.
Keeping us in the dark is not helping the Government, in my view, nor will it help convince the public when the referendum comes around. The Prime Minister has stated that he is seeking proper full-on treaty change and a fundamental change in Britain’s relationship with the EU.
I applaud his ambition and sincerely wish him well but I do believe we’re entitled to greater transparency. We need to see some real detail.
A lot has changed since 1975 when I voted “Yes to Europe”, not least the introduction of the euro and the drive towards ever-closer union. Forty years on, it’s clear to me that either the EU has to change, or Britain’s relationship with the EU has to change. If the Government fails to secure truly radical reform, I will have no other choice but to vote to leave.
Let me be clear: Britain’s exit from the EU is not my preferred option, but if that’s what happens, so be it. If the choice of the British people is to leave, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Lord Bamford is Chairman of British construction equipment manufacturer JCB and a Conservative peer