EU referendum baffling continental neighbours, says Alan Johnson

Alan Johnson MP, leader of the Labour In For Britain campaign.
Alan Johnson MP, leader of the Labour In For Britain campaign.
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BRITAIN’S referendum on the European Union has left our continental neighbours “scratching their heads” in disbelief, Alan Johnson has told the Yorkshire Post.

The senior party figure, who many believe is the great leader Labour never had, is fronting the Labour In For Britain campaign which recently took its distinctive red bus to Doncaster.

From export deals boosting Yorkshire’s economy, protecting workers rights to the benefits of international co-operation, the former Home Secretary makes the case for a vote to stay when polls open on June 23.

Speaking to this newspaper before his UK tour got underway, Mr Johnson said: “I think the rest of Europe, and indeed the rest of the world are scratching their heads wondering why we should be contemplating leaving when no country would be thinking of pulling itself away from an international organisation that is beneficial. Why would we be contemplating that?”

The Hull West MP said he sympathises with European leaders who have found Britain’s call for a referendum and subsequent negotiations for reforms particularly trying.

Asked if Britain is increasingly unpopular with other member states, he said: “We might be in some countries.”

“If you think about it... just getting a group of your neighbours in a local village hall, and if you go in there and you slag them off and say look, I think I am superior to you, and I think you are always doing things to us, I dislike you intensely but you know, I would like to work with you - you are not going to get very far. And there is a sense that is what we have been doing in Britain.

“I think this idea that we just shout out demands with our hands on the exit door is frustrating, I would be frustrated if I was the victim of that, but that phase is over.

“They want us to stay. We are an influential country. We exert the maximum influence, people respect our record diplomacy, English is the language of the European Union. So why would you want to move away from that?

“You would only want to move away from that if you believe the guff about Europe making our laws...which it doesn’t.”

Wearing flares and a tank-top aged 25, he voted “yes” to the EU referendum in 1975 when he was still a postman and union official. Forty years later he has never regretted making that decision.

And for Yorkshire, he says the evidence of remaining is clear. Ever since he was elected MP in 1997, he has seen the region benefit continually from EU relations.

“Yorkshire is a net beneficiary of the EU.

“We’ve got a huge opportunity on the Humber to be the renewables centre of Europe. When Siemens came they looked at 104 locations in Europe, there was huge competition, and we got them to Hull and there is no doubt in my mind they wouldn’t have come if Britain was outside the European Union,” said Mr Johnson, 66.

The UK economy has also benefited from the all-encompassing nature of EU trade deals that sometimes bring surprising markets our way.

He said: “South Korea wanted to trade with Germany, but their trade with Germany meant they had to trade with the EU and a result of that is British exports to South Korea have gone up exponentially. The Scottish Whiskey Association said it’s had an enormous increase and that is good for British businesses. You are risking all of that success.”

Whether it is in Yorkshire, or nationally, he claims the remain side are winning the argument on the economic benefits of staying in the EU, dismissing Vote Leave’s cavalier attitude to the country’s finances.

“Even a Brexiteer would suggest there is a big question mark over our economy. They say “oh yeah” but people will just do a deal with Britain, everything will be alright on the night. I don’t think that’s true,” he said.

He was part of the team under Tony Blair took the decision not to attempt to join the Euro in 1997 and he is pleased that David Cameron negotiated with the European Council greater protections for the pound.

Establishing that position while there are eight non-eurozone countries is key, as he suggests that power in numbers gives Britain leverage.

He said: “Us and Denmark can stay out of [the euro], and let’s establish that position while there is more of us, not waiting until there’s just two of us. I think that was right.”

Naturally he is keeping an eye on the polls despite the Labour Party being burnt at the General Election when the Conservative majority Government took everyone by surprise.

He admits the polling of 2015 has left a lot of people skeptical but he is still paying “serious attention” and this week they show the Remain camp pulling ahead after weeks of a tie.

As the referendum debate swings between the minutiae and the macro week by week, David Cameron continues his fixation on economic impact for the British householder. But Mr

Johnson and others, feel they must make the case for Europe’s interests too as Britain cannot remove itself from the web of internationalism.

He said: “I think one of the best people to articulate this view that actually that not only would this damage our country but Europe as well, is William Hague. A good Yorkshireman.

"William Hague wrote a piece in the Daily Telegraph just before Christmas that was all the more powerful because he was a eurosceptic but he made the point that if we walk away from Europe into isolation, and we damage this country... and it would leave Europe diminished, and they are our neighbours. We might leave the EU, but we can’t leave Europe.”