EUROPE DEBATE: Sorting out the EU facts from the fiction

Sir Alan Beith, now Lord Beith, former MP for Berwick. 
Picture by Jane Coltman

Sir Alan Beith, now Lord Beith, former MP for Berwick. Picture by Jane Coltman

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Have your say

It’s all so confusing - can’t someone just give us the facts? That is what a lot of people are saying about the Europe vote.

The trouble is that genuine facts are few and far between in the campaigns on both sides. Some of the things presented as facts are not facts at all, either because they are simply not true, or because they are no more than estimates or guesses about the future. So let’s clear away some of the non-facts, identify some facts we can rely on, and then get down to the real question, which is about judgement: how do you think Britain would be best placed to secure a prosperous and peaceful future for our country, for our children and our grandchildren?

A statement that your income will go down by a precise amount or your mortgage will go up by a similarly precise figure is not a fact at all – it is only an estimate of what might happen if, as most economists agree, the economy is hit and interest rates go up in the event of Britain leaving. The statement from the Leave campaign that Britain could not prevent Turkey from joining the EU and sending most of its population here as immigrants is not a fact at all – it is 100% false, because the UK has a veto on any new country joining.

Now for some facts. Membership of the EU means the businesses which create jobs have access to a free market of 500million people – the biggest single market in the world. It is also a fact that we, like all other member countries, have to keep to a set of rules designed to maintain free trade and the rights of workers and customers, and we help to make those rules. We can also trade with a lot of the rest of the world because the EU has agreed trade deals with many other countries – if we left the EU, it would take us a very long time to replace those deals. Here’s another fact – it is possible to get the benefit of the single market without being in the European Union, but at a price – Norway does, but it has to accept all the rules, without any say in how they are decided, and it has to pay towards the EU budget as we do. What would be the point of that for us?

One of the rules we would have to keep if we left the EU but stayed in the single market is the freedom of EU citizens, including British citizens, to work and live in other member countries. Do you remember the TV series Auf Wiedersehen Pet about the Geordies working on construction sites in Germany? People who are keen to work will go where the work is and the reason the UK and the North East are attracting immigrants is that we have a very low unemployment rate at the moment.

Now for farming facts. A large proportion of our produce is exported to EU countries and depends on the access we get as EU members. Many of our farms depend on the Single Farm Payment. Whether the Treasury would abandon its hostility to farm subsidies and would fully replace them for the foreseeable future in the event of Brexit is a matter of judgement, but I share the doubts of many farmers.

That brings us to money facts. The UK contributes to the EU budget – not the £350million each week claimed by the Leave campaign, but £136million a week when you take account of what comes back in rebate, farm subsidies and projects in areas like the North East. If we wanted to stay in the single market we would still have to pay into the budget.

And then there are facts about democracy. By joining the EU, we agreed that some issues which affect all of Europe should be decided by all of Europe together. Not by bureaucrats, but by ministers from each of the democratically elected member governments, with an elected European Parliament playing an increasing role. National parliaments in other countries like Denmark keep closer control than we do over what their Ministers decide at European level and it is up to us to do the same for our Ministers.

Finally, international facts. At the end of the Second World War the founders of the European Union, several of them former resistance fighters and victims of the Nazis, wanted to guarantee that the nations of Europe would never have to be at war with each other again. My view is that, although the structure they created was too centralised and has had to change in recognition of the role of member states, they have succeeded. And after the fall of the Soviet Union, nations which had escaped Communist rule wanted to guarantee their democratic future and their chances of achieving prosperity by joining the EU. They, and the leaders of our NATO allies and our Commonwealth partners, all think it is better for us, for the world and for peace, if we remain EU members. It is a fact that one world leader would be pleased if we voted to leave – President Putin. He would see it as weakening Europe.

Would we be able to overcome the expected setback to our economy if we voted to leave, and would we be able to find a better opportunity to prosper than we have in the EU?

I have found no convincing answer to this from the Leave campaign, and my judgement is that we are stronger and more secure if we vote to Remain.

This is not an X-Factor vote about whether we like or loathe David Cameron or Boris Johnson – it is a very serious decision about our children’s future.