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Andrew Lewer MEP on the missed opportunity of renegotiation and why he’ll be voting to Leave

Guest Blogger, 4 April 2016

I believe we need fundamental reform of the European Union to drive out waste, unnecessary interference and red tape. Unfortunately, that is not what is on offer when the British public vote in the June referendum.

Our deal with the EU should not have been simply about keeping Britain happy. It should have been aimed at securing a new way of working across the union that cuts costs and focuses EU effort where it is truly needed. It was the opportunity for the EU to start delivering real benefits and changes for all its member states. And it was our best chance to rein in the EU and hand back powers to national parliaments.

If we are to stay in the EU, it needs to become a modern, effective force across Europe. In its current shape, it is not. There are very real and difficult issues facing Europe today  – such as the refugee and Euro crises. So far, the EU has failed to provide the necessary leadership to properly tackle these issues. Yet it seems determined to press ahead and create an ever-closer union, claiming even more powers for itself.

The UK does not need this creeping interference in national government affairs – neither do many other member states. But the response to the UK’s modest set of reform proposals, suggests there is no appetite among our partners for doing things truly differently.

We did not ask for much – not nearly enough in my opinion. And what we have asked for has been badly watered down. Not only that, the deal could be further diluted by the European Parliament or thrown out by the European Court of Justice after we have had our UK remain or leave referendum. We will not know until after we have voted.

Current EU treaties still say that ever closer union is a core rule. Yes, the UK has opt outs and vetoes but the EU continues to wield huge power over our laws and public policy.  It is a big mistake to think that only Heads of Governments have political power and not the EU Commission, the EU Parliament and the European Court of Justice.

The UK wanted to restrict EU migrants coming to the UK to look for a job. We wanted to limit their access to welfare benefits until they have worked in the UK and paid taxes for four years. And we wanted to stop child benefit payments for children who do not live in the UK. What we have been offered falls well short:

  • EU migrants looking for work will still be able to come to the UK and receive Jobseekers’ Allowance
  • No four year ban on welfare benefits – over the four years migrant workers will progressively gain more and more access to welfare benefits
  • The UK will continue to pay child benefit to EU migrants whose children live abroad – we may be able to reduce the amount taking account of lower costs of living in the countries where the child lives. But it will only apply to new EU migrants.

Even this weakened package is not permanent. The brake will last for seven years with no option for renewal. The EU calls it an “emergency brake” only for occasional and temporary use. Worse still, the power to apply the brake will be decided by the EU not the UK.

We also wanted the EU to hand back powers to national parliaments to block unwanted or unnecessary EU legislation. We have been offered a Red Card system. It means 14 governments within the EU have to agree a new law is wrong and they all have to do it within 12 weeks – an almost impossible ask.

The Red Card system cannot be binding without a treaty change – but no real treaty change is proposed. So the EU could ignore the results of the Red Card and carry on regardless. Neither will the Red Card shift any powers back to the UK – it applies only to new laws.

Then there is the cost of the EU – a big issue for the UK as one of the top three net  payers into the EU budget.

I have long campaigned for EU structural development funds – which make up a third of EU spending – to be included in the renegotiation. These are multi-billion Euro funds – aimed at boosting economic growth, development and cooperation between member states.

The current system creates unnecessary red tape and expense and lacks proper scrutiny. We get about £10 billion back of our £30 billion contribution over seven years – but the EU tells us how we can spend it. I believe these decisions are best taken locally by people who know what is needed locally.

Many of these projects across Europe have not delivered the economic benefits or success they promised. Others have been exposed as white elephants. There is little evidence the funds are having a positive effect on the EU economy or are being used to secure on-going returns. We need to stop this pointless merry-go-round – paying money in and getting a small portion back with many strings attached. None of this has featured in the renegotiations.

We also need guarantees that British money is safe from being used for Eurozone bailouts? We thought we had them, but then last year the EU expected Britain to contribute to the latest Greek bailout. We did not in the end. But what happens after the UK has voted to stay in the EU and we are out-voted by other EU members?

Since we joined, the UK’s gross contribution to the EU has grown to almost £19 billion a year. Two years ago, the UK was asked to pay more – a direct result of our economy growing faster than other EU member states.

If – and it is a big if – we are to remain, we need to tackle the EU’s significant drawbacks including:

  • over-regulation and interference
  • loss of sovereignty
  • the huge transfer payments we make – £350 million a week
  • the continuing aim for an ever-closer union
  • the lack of control over our borders and over migration.

Unfortunately, I do not believe the EU is willing or capable of delivering what is needed. Neither do I subscribe to the belief that the UK is safer inside the EU – it is not borne out by recent history. The EU has just thrown billions at an autocratic Turkish regime for a bizarre migrant swapping scheme. It also means free access to the EU for a further 77 million people.

None of us has a crystal ball to predict the future. However, the leave camp is expected to have more answers. The idea that a future inside the EU is a model of calm and safe status quo is not borne out by recent history. Over the last decade it has lurched from unpredictable crisis to unpredictable crisis.

In an uncertain world is it not safer to have the ability to react, adapt and change? Or would we rather be tied to 27 other countries’ agendas and problems?

The EU does have its good points and leaving would have negative as well as positive consequences. Taken together, I believe the drawbacks outweigh the benefits of staying in and – on balance – we will be better off economically and democratically outside the EU.

However, the choice will be made by the British people and not by politicians.  We have David Cameron and a Conservative Government to thank for that – whatever the result.

Andrew Lewer MBE is MEP for the East Midlands and was first elected in 2014. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website here. 

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