It is a great privilege to serve as a Member of this House. It strikes me that its primary function in a democracy is to create, amend, modify and repeal the laws of the nation, hopefully in the interests of British citizens. I think that people elect their Governments to serve the national interest. Sometimes, of course, it is necessary to sign international treaties on trade or aid, provided that that is in the interests of British citizens. However, such agreements should not include the wholesale handing over of control of our defence, our economy, or powers to make or modify our laws.
It is worth reflecting for a few moments on what might have been if citizens and campaign groups had not alerted the Government to some of the dangers posed by adventures that the Government had hoped to undertake in recent years.
Having played a role in Business for Sterling and the “No to the euro” campaign since 1998, I am very much aware that in 1997-98 about 70 per cent. of the public was of the view that it was inevitable that we would join the euro, and about 90 per cent. of members of the Government of that time were in favour of joining the euro. It was almost as though we were in bunkers and outgunned on all sides, but gradually—and under duress—over a period of years a rational view prevailed. It was eventually recognised, including by the Chancellor, that maintaining our control of British interest rates, and thereby being able to control our economy via them, was the best way to generate a more competitive economy.
It is also interesting that not too long ago there was an ardent Government campaign for us to sign the European Union constitution. I remember commentating on Sky as the Prime Minister actually signed the EU constitution—we should not forget that he put his signature to the constitution. There was also a massive campaign in favour of it—so thank goodness not only for our own citizens’ views, but for the French and the Danish for rescuing us from what could have been a catastrophic position. I will not go through all the arguments on this topic, but if we had signed the EU constitution we would not be a freely trading independent state; we would be a subservient state of a European superstate. In hindsight, both now and in years to come, we are, and we will be, glad that we did not sign it.
Members have spoken eloquently on sovereignty, the supremacy of Parliament, defence and controlling our borders as part of what makes being an independent state, so I shall focus on business and competitiveness before going on to share some of my hopes for the future of the EU—because I am in some ways fairly, although also cautiously, optimistic about its future in a new form.
We must never forget that business is the engine of our economy and that freely operating British businesses that do not have too many burdens of bureaucracy on them generate all the jobs, all the income and all the taxation that pays for the good things that we want in society, such as health, education and pensions. I did mean to say that all the jobs come from business, because the taxation raised from business is what pays for Government jobs, quango jobs and our doctors and nurses. Any unnecessary burden or regulation on business is unwelcome and should be questioned.
It is a striking fact that about 70 per cent. of business regulation and legislation originates in the EU. We could claim that many of the regulations and laws—or the aspirations of many of them—are in our national interest. Plenty of arguments could be put forward on that topic. However, what is clear is that the EU has in many ways moved on from prescriptive legislation in the past year or two. It has begun to look at principles-based legislation—a simple principle is brought into effect and then it is left to businesses to determine how best to put it into practice and to make their own decisions without being overwhelmed with reams of paperwork. Sadly, the Government have not yet cottoned on to that, or to the fact that it means that they no longer need to gold-plate legislation coming from the EU. One can simply reflect a few lines or pages, rather than tens of thousands of words and hundreds of pages of regulation, on British businesses.
The British Chambers of Commerce estimates that the new burden of business regulation is about £50 billion, about 70 per cent. of which comes from the EU. I recall several years ago looking at the working time directive guidance. There were over 100 pages. I sat scan-reading it for about five or six hours, when at that time I should really have just been getting on with running my business. Even to this day, I cannot quite fathom the calculation for working out whether employees have been working an average of 48 hours a week over a 17-week period; it is mayhem. I can pretty much guarantee to the House that many small and medium-sized businesses will not be adhering to the working time directive by keeping such records. If they implemented all the detail in much of that guidance, they would simply be unable to run their businesses.
On European regulation, there are two main challenges. First, although not all the stock of existing regulation needs to be undone, that needs to happen to a certain degree. Secondly, we must consider the flow of new regulations. Fortunately, that flow has slowed somewhat, but a lot remains to be done in stemming it further. That is largely a job for this House, as it examines the regulations coming through via statutory instruments and their implementation.
I want to finish by painting a slightly more hopeful picture of the future of the European Union. We are all very aware of the existing EU’s failings and the challenges that we face, but I am hopeful and reasonably optimistic about the medium to long-term future. With enlargement come opportunities; with enlargement, the mood and culture of the EU change. Since Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland joined a few years ago, the culture of the EU has become more entrepreneurial. Those countries recognise the benefit of commerce and free trade, not only within the EU but in a global context. To a certain degree, that adds to the EU.
We also have the opportunity to adopt more inthe way of principles-based legislation, instead of prescriptive regulation, and to reform European institutions. Members have mentioned the changes that they would like to see, many of which are very sensible. In the light of enlargement, perhaps it is time to consider having a single European language. I am not sure which language we might nominate, but that would certainly save a lot of translation. What do we think?
Perhaps it is also time seriously to consider ending the policy of switching between buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg, which costs millions of pounds each year. This is a good time to deal with such issues.
There is also a great opportunity for democracy. Many Members have spoken about the democratic deficit and the fact that European citizens feel disfranchised—that they feel no connection with the European Parliament and the other European institutions. There is an opportunity to establish a flexible, outward-looking grouping of independent nations, and enlargement brings that prospect slightly closer.
In essence, might we dare hope for a newly evolved European Union in years to come—a grouping of democratic and independent nations co-operating in various ways on trade and aid, and in many other fields? Why should we limit our ambitions? Why do we not hope for a massive expansion of the EU? Why not add 10, 20 or even 100 new independent states? If we add 100, we will have outgrown Europe, so perhaps we would have to rename the EU. Perhaps we could call it “a global economy”.