Coffee House

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Brexit would be Project Risk

14 June 2016

11:23 PM

14 June 2016

11:23 PM

When I was Foreign Secretary, a French newspaper described me on one occasion as a “eurosceptic moderate” and of course those two words tell you what my position is.  I strongly opposed the single currency and was part of many other people who were opposing that at that time.  But I don’t believe that it is one-size-fits-all: already, we have two kinds of European Union – those who are in the eurozone and those who are not, there are 15 who are in and 13 who are not, some who don’t want to be, some who used to want to be then changed their minds and some who will never be. So the question is whether this diversity of opinion is one that suits the British temperament and the conclusion I’ve come to is based on three considerations and I want to share with you my reasons for reaching the conclusions I have to remain.

The first is back to the original reason why the European Union was formed.  It wasn’t for economic reasons, it was because Europe as we all know has seen two world wars, European people have been fighting each other for centuries and it wasn’t just continental Europeans, as British people were part of both of these world wars from day one and we suffered with all these other countries so it was a determination never to allow that to happen again to decide to bring Europe together in a way that made sense in the circumstances that we now have and that has been an enormous success.  The reconciliation between France and Germany, bringing in the new democracies from Eastern Europe, they have all now embraced the idea although we are different nationalities and different nation states.

Now I don’t want to suggest that if we left the European Union that would be the beginning of chaos. But it would be a most serious setback to that association of nations in Europe because one of those nations, the United Kingdom, would be turning its back on a European Union and that is fragmentation.  It is quite possible that other countries would say: well,  maybe we should go the same way.


And you’ll get a process of fragmentation which wouldn’t just remove the things we don’t like about the European Union but would return to the condition it was in in the past. And that worries me a great deal. What worries me is that here we are at this moment and in the years to come where Soviet Russia is acting aggressively and the idea that Europe would be fragmented into many nation states without the same cohesion that the European Union and NATO brought together, because NATO provides our military defence but we also need both the military dimension as well as cultural, economic and other dimensions.  So that is very important to me and that is the first point.

The second point relates to the single market.  I was Margaret Thatcher’s Europe Minister and I remember very clearly the instruction she gave me: we want to have nothing to do with the eurozone but we must get a single market.  The single market was Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement in European terms.  Now she said we must have majority voting in the single market because otherwise protectionist countries like the French will try and thwart us: that is what we now have.

It is the single market which does have difficulties such as the free movement of labour and we are all aware of the controversies of that. But it would be a great irony if the country which more than any other was responsible for the single market was the country that walked away because of aspects of it.  We are the fifth-largest economy in the world and we have perhaps the lowest levels of unemployment in Europe. So it is just worth remembering that when we joined the European Community as it then was, we were the sick man of Europe, that’s when we had three day weeks and all the lights went off and trade unions were powerful.  Now part of this was because of Margaret Thatcher’s policy and other changes domestically but the idea that the single market has held us back …

Most of the Brexit people until recently said: we can leave the European Union and still be part of the single market, look at Norway and Switzerland and it was rather late in the day a couple of weeks ago that some of them said for the first time, well we don’t actually want to be in the single market.  Of course the reason was they realised that Norway and Switzerland, to get the same benefits of the single market, have also been accepting and incorporating all the EU laws into their own laws.  So now we are told by Michael Gove in a speech on behalf of his campaign that we will have a free trade area from Iceland to Russia and actually most of the countries in that area are already in the European Union or trying to join and when he was asked to give an example of what he had in mind for Britain, he said Albania.

And the final point, one of the great rallying calls from the Brexit side is ‘Give us back our country, we want control’.  Well it poses the question, what do we mean by sovereignty?  The most important expression of sovereignty is who decides whether you go to war and having been involved in wars in the Falklands, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, the decisions there were taken by the British government, the British parliament.  And the taxes we pay, that’s why we fought a civil war in England in the 1640s, who determines the taxes we pay.  The taxes we pay are determined by the United Kingdom parliament.  What about the largest part of the budget of the government, the social security budget, for pensions and benefits of that kind?  That isn’t determined by the European Union and likewise the NHS is not run by Brussels, no one in their right mind believes that, nor are our schools or universities or our prisons.  So there are supranational matters where we have sovereignty, overwhelmingly – not exclusively but overwhelmingly – to agriculture, and in agriculture the farmers themselves say they want to remain in the European Union and the single market.

It’s not an easy decision. It’s not –  if I may say so – Project Fear. But it is project risk, and risk is something that we all have to assess in our private lives, when we are taking out a mortgage or borrowing some money. But we do know already what being in the European Union involves.  It creates some frustration and it creates some disappointments and we get fed up, as do the French, as do people in Germany, as do people in Italy but don’t forget, do we really want our children to live in a world where most of the decisions will be taken by the United States, by China, by Russia, by India and Europe will be five, ten, fifteen, twenty relatively smaller countries that are unable to make this contribution on wider issues?

So my conclusion has to be this: I think we have the best of both worlds and I think the most important thing that David Cameron has done was clarification of the phrase ‘ever closer union’ does not in any way commit the United Kingdom to any further integration it doesn’t think is right and proper.  We have diversity in the United Kingdom, we have diversity in Europe and that is the route in which we are going.  So that is why I am not remotely surprised that it’s our children’s generation, my children’s generation in their 20s and 30s who seem to want to stay in more than the generation like myself so that is something to bear in mind, we are not just voting for the next week or the next month but we are talking really about future generations and that is why I am voting to remain in the European Union.


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