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.