This article was originally published in the Mail on Sunday on 21 February 2016, and is written in a personal capacity.
It's clear now that the United Kingdom should never have joined the European Union. In many ways, it’s a failing project, an overblown bureaucracy in need of wide-ranging and urgent reform.
Had we never taken the fateful decision to sign up, the UK would still, of course, be a successful country with a strong economy.
We would be an independent trading nation like the US, Japan, or Canada.
Over the years, we would have developed trade agreements with the EU and with others, all without surrendering control over immigration or our economic independence.
If this year’s referendum were a vote on whether to join in the first place, I wouldn’t hesitate to stand up and say Britain would be better off staying out.
But the question we’re faced with is not about what we should have done 43 years ago. It’s about what we should do now, in 2016.
That’s why, with a heavy heart and no enthusiasm, I shall be voting for the UK to remain a member of the European Union.
As I’ve said before, a vote to leave the EU is not something I’m afraid of. I’d embrace the opportunities such a move would create and I have no doubt that, after leaving, Britain would be able to secure trade agreements not just with the EU, but with many others too.
The great unanswerable question is how long that would all take – and at what short-term cost?
Ignore the scare stories about a vindictive EU snubbing the UK – it simply couldn’t afford to, and an agreement letting the UK maintain its current level of access to EU markets would, eventually, materialise. But it would require the unanimous consent of all 27 remaining members – something that simply cannot be achieved overnight.
When a deal is reached, it may require us to accept the same blizzard of regulations that’s imposed by Brussels not just on member states, but on countries like Norway and Switzerland that need access to European markets.
And, like them, it’s possible we would have no say over what those regulations contained, while still potentially paying an access fee.
The same applies further afield. The EU – including the UK – currently has preferential trade deals in place with 53 countries and territories around the world.
These complex agreements have been built up over the course of nearly half a century, and nobody can say how many years will pass while they are unpicked and rewoven for a post-Brexit Britain. I worked in international business long enough to know that uncertainty is the single biggest enemy of growth.
The negotiations would end well for Britain, but we have no idea what the economic cost would be in the meantime – how much foreign investment would go elsewhere, how much domestic investment would be deferred or cancelled.
Even the most committed members of the ‘leave’ camp accept that there will inevitably be a short-term cost to leaving.
The question is whether it is balanced out by the long-term gains. It’s a very reasonable question – and I came incredibly close to answering ‘Yes, yes it is.’
But, in recent months, we have once again seen storm clouds gathering over the global economy. As a former financial analyst, I still take a keen interest in the markets. Far more important than what the commentators are saying is what the markets are forecasting: a significant global economic downturn.
The fallout from a ‘leave’ vote this summer would only add to economic turbulence that is, quite possibly, about to engulf the world.
Some have even warned that Brexit could precipitate the total collapse of the EU, and while I know that many might welcome such a prospect, the shockwaves could prove catastrophic in the current climate.
My heart says we are better off out. My head says it’s too risky right now. For the past six years, I’ve been doing everything I can to repair the damage Labour did to our national economy.
I’m no europhile, but nor am I prepared to risk undoing all that work and casting aside all the sacrifices we asked of this country while the post-Brexit talks drag on and investor confidence wavers. Staying in the EU for now doesn’t have to mean accepting the status quo.
I am disappointed by the scope and scale of the reforms offered by the European Council. However, thanks to the Prime Minister, it is definitely a step in the right direction – and, crucially, one that shows reform is possible.
This package shows that Britain can exert influence over the future direction of the EU. And an opportunity to secure more significant reform is just around the corner. Even fans of the EU will admit that further treaty changes are needed to fix crises such as the Eurozone meltdown.
And when that happens, pro-reform nations will be in an extremely strong negotiating position. ‘Yes, we will give you the change you want, but only if you give us the change we need’ – and I’m particularly thinking of taking back control of immigration by ending the unrestricted freedom of movement.
For me, this referendum does not have to be a once-in-a-generation event. The fight for reform is not over and if Brussels fails to recognise that, I can see a time when walking away may be the right thing to do – but in a more benign global economic environment and under a UK Government that makes a credible case for leaving.
For now, we stay, and we fight.
So when I go to cast my vote in June, I’ll only be thinking about one thing – what is right for my country and for my family.
And whether it means agreeing with me or not, I’d urge you to do the same.
- The best of both worlds: The United Kingdom's special status in a reformed European Union: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-best-of-both-worlds-the-united-kingdoms-special-status-in-a-reformed-european-union
- Alternatives to membership: possible models for the United Kingdom outside the European Union: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/504661/Alternatives_to_membership_possible_models_for_the_UK_outside_the_EU_Accessible.pdf