Hilary Benn: Now is not the time for UK to pull up the EU drawbridge

Leeds MP Hilary Benn is the Shadow Foreign Secretary.
Leeds MP Hilary Benn is the Shadow Foreign Secretary.
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THOSE who are campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union, in my view, profoundly misunderstand what will best serve the British national interest.

There is nothing patriotic about diminishing the United Kingdom’s ability to make its voice heard by other nations. Narrow nationalism is not the same as patriotism. And stumbling out of Europe and pulling up the drawbridge would only serve to harm our position and influence in the world.

The EU currently has or is negotiating trade agreements with 90 per cent of Commonwealth countries; so much for the argument that being in the EU prevents us from having better trade relations with the Commonwealth.

The EU is a huge market of over 500 million people. So why on earth would we want to exchange the certainty of the deals we currently have for the uncertainty of the deals that we might not secure?

The truth is that we cannot turn the clock back. The world has moved on and so must we. And Britain is always at its greatest when we are a confident and outward-looking trading nation.

It was Jacques Delors, the then President of the European Commission, who made that speech about his vision of a social Europe to the Trades Union Congress in 1988 which helped to change the attitude of the Labour and trade union movement towards Europe.

And Europe was as good as its word in bringing us paid holidays, improved maternity and paternity leave, limits on working time and better protection for agency and temporary workers.

It is a really striking example of how, by working together, we can prevent a race to the bottom that globalisation, left unchecked, could bring.

Now, it is not just economic security that our membership of Europe is so important for. It is now also a bedrock of our national and international security.

The European idea has helped to keep the peace on a continent that previously had been at war for centuries. Any one of us who has visited the graveyards of the First and Second World Wars in France, Belgium or elsewhere understands the significance of this achievement.

Row upon row upon row of the flower of two generations of Europeans. The gravestones bearing the name, regiment and age of the fallen – how young they were – or just the poignant inscription “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God” because no one else knew whose brother, son, uncle or father lay beneath the immaculately cared for ground.

Europe’s founders were determined to end this history of European slaughter, and out of the ashes of the Second World War emerged the Schumann Declaration, inspired by Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann.

It read: “The contribution which an organised and living Europe can bring to civilisation is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations” and it resolved to make a future war “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”.

For me – as for many – this was and remains Europe’s greatest achievement and it is one we should never take for granted.

And it has achieved much more besides. Europe provided a powerful incentive to the former communist states of central and eastern Europe to embrace political pluralism, and in so doing created a hugely powerful alliance built on the values of democracy, respect for human rights, free media, the rule of law and individual freedom.

It has given us a louder voice as we confront threats to international peace and security.

Just look at how Europe was able to co-ordinate its response to the Russian aggression in Crimea and Ukraine. Let’s be clear. President Putin would shed no tears if Britain left the European Union. He would see Brexit as a sign of our weakness and of the weakness of European solidarity at the very moment when we need to maintain our collective strength.

Or take the nuclear deal with Iran; a huge European foreign policy success.

We only have to look at what has been happening on our continent these past few months to see what that future could bring. The flow of refugees has put the Schengen agreement under enormous strain and has tested Europe’s solidarity to the limit. But imagine what would have happened – what would be happening now on the continent of Europe – if the European Union did not exist.

In Europe, as elsewhere in the world, we not only have a moral interest in preventing conflict, stopping dangerous climate change and promoting economic development to overcome poverty in developing countries, but also a practical interest in doing so.

The choice is very simple. Either we seek to do so in co-operation with our neighbours, near and far, through bodies like the European Union and the United Nations, or we will struggle to deal with them separately.

Hilary Benn is the Leeds Central MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary who gave a keynote speech to the Chatham House think-tank. This is an edited version.