The European Referendum-The Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP-14th March 2016.

With the European Referendum only 14 weeks away (June 23) it is hard to think of a more timely sub­ject or a better qual­i­fied and dis­tin­guished speaker in all mat­ters European than our own MP.

Before being invited to enlighten us on this most com­plex and far reach­ing of sub­jects our Chairman intro­duced us to the man who had recently been Deputy Prime Minister. Nick Clegg’s par­ents –his father half Russian and mother Dutch- had influ­enced his inter­na­tional out­look and lin­guistic abil­ity. (He is fluent in Dutch, French, German and Spanish). His wife of six­teen years, Miriam, is Spanish and they have three boys.

Following his first degree in Social Anthropology at Cambridge, Nick con­tin­ued his post­gradu­ate stud­ies in the USA and at the European College in Bruges. His early career included work­ing for the European Commission in Brussels where he had respons­ib­il­ity for trade nego­ti­ations with Russia and China. In 1999 Nick was elec­ted Member of the European Parliament for the East Midlands and in 2005 MP for Sheffield Hallam. He was elec­ted Leader of the Lib Dems in 2007, a post he held until his resig­na­tion fol­low­ing the May 2015 General Election.

Mr Clegg com­menced his talk by remind­ing us that while General Election res­ults could be undone in five years, a Referendum might be irre­vers­ible. The June 23 vote was a decision on behalf of our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. Accepting that the present EU was far from per­fect, we had to decide between the bene­fits of the status quo or as a coun­try take the risk of becom­ing poorer, less safe and dis­united. Our speaker took these ele­ments in turn.

The Economic. The UK was an open eco­nomy trad­ing across the world in goods, ser­vices and ideas. Globalisation of pro­duc­tion, trans­port, tech­no­logy and envir­on­mental mat­ters were assum­ing greater import­ance. Decisions made in Shanghai could affect Sheffield and not just steel. Europe, with 500 mil­lion people was the largest free-trade bloc in the world.

The devel­op­ment of a ‘Single Market’ had been the concept of an Englishman, Lord Cofield, being endorsed by no less than Margaret Thatcher in 1990. The asso­ci­ated European legis­la­tion was being con­stantly updated to reflect that in the digital age, trade within the Euro bloc is not restric­ted by tariff, rule or reg­u­la­tion: appar­ently 28 still apply to the pro­duc­tion of plastic ducks! While we ran a defi­cit in man­u­fac­tures, the Single market was a vital factor in the export to Europe of ser­vices such as Architecture and Banking where we ran a sub­stan­tial sur­plus. If we left we would have no influ­ence in draw­ing up future qual­i­fic­a­tion or reg­u­lat­ory require­ments in these areas. Severance could ser­i­ously under­mine not just our influ­ence but our live­li­hoods.

Safety and Security. The British have taken a key role in the cur­rent European approach to such mat­ters as piracy, people and drug traf­fick­ing, illegal immig­ra­tion, cyber­crime and envir­on­mental con­cerns. It made sense to cooper­ate with our Continental part­ners in areas such as Arrest Warrants and the deport­a­tion of crim­in­als. Mr Clegg accep­ted that Europe had not respon­ded well to such issues as the cur­rent migra­tion crisis. Schengen was a good concept but was flawed by lack of effect­ive con­trols on Europe’s external bor­ders. The present situ­ation in the Ukraine, Syria, the Middle East gen­er­ally and the resur­gence of Russian power reminded us of the import­ance of pool­ing our Defence resources in both NATO and with our European allies.

Our Country was not “Great Britain” for noth­ing. We had a long his­tory of ‘doing the right thing’ in defend­ing ourselves, going to the aid of others and ensur­ing human rights. Our con­tinu­ing abil­ity in these areas would be reduced if we left the EU. Our present value to the United States was because we could be relied upon to pull our weight on this side of the Atlantic.

A Disunited Kingdom. The SNP pos­i­tion was to stay in the European Union. Our depar­ture would stim­u­late fur­ther pres­sures for Scottish inde­pend­ence. If that came about, a dis­united Kingdom would be unlikely to hold, let alone increase, its influ­ence or secur­ity in the World. As might be expec­ted, Mr Clegg’s present­a­tion stim­u­lated a wide range of ques­tions and obser­va­tions from mem­bers. These included: A need to get away from the cur­rent ‘Dave v Boris’ debate and have an inde­pend­ent sum­mary of the argu­ments for and against.

  • The Swiss and Norwegian models would imply loss of abil­ity to influ­ence events, while still having to pay levies into EU funds
  • Staying in the EU also car­ries risk. Trade with EU was declin­ing rel­at­ive to other mar­kets. The Euro was not work­ing (exept for in Germany where it made exports cheaper), immig­ra­tion is a shambles and there are still too many over­bear­ing rules and reg­u­la­tions
  • In or out we would still be affected by events over the Channel includ­ing migrants
  • Britain’s role as ‘sick man of Europe’ in the sev­en­ties had been replaced by France
  • Moving the EU Parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg is waste­ful and only done to please the French
  • Our sov­er­eignty is being eroded by lack of con­trol and by being con­stantly out­voted.

Nick Clegg con­cluded by shar­ing his shock of the General Election result but accep­ted that involve­ment in polit­ics is a dif­fi­cult game. We were in no doubt that we had not seen the last of this able and public spir­ited man.