Saturday, 4 June 2016

Report of today's packed Hexham Debate on the EU Referendum

Around 200 people attended the Queen Elizabeth High School in Hexham for a 90 minute amicable but robust exchange of views. It is fair to say that the majority arrived with a preconceived view, but there were clearly some who arrived undecided, including our compère George Hepburn. 
Today's debate featured 2 North East MEPs, Jude Kirton Darling helping me on the Remain side, and Jonathan Arnott helping Andy Saunders on the leave side.

The format was 4 sets of 7 minute speeches at the start and the finish, with 35 minutes allowed in the middle for the many questions, statements or queries that were raised in over 20 great questions/ comments from the audience. 
Jude and I agreed to split the debate,and the responses, as a tag team so that: 
- I would address the economy, sovereignty and immigration, particularly in so far as they applied to Northumberland, in my opening, and then focus on the key Hexham Debate themes of Justice, Peace and Democracy in my closing.
- Jude would address her 5 reasons as to why the wider North East benefits from Europe; and then deal with the specific questions and queries as to the process of the EU, and also as part of her closing address accountability, the application of the WTO upon Brexit and the tariffs that would result, fishing, democratic process, and many other broader questions raised. Jude spoke strongly, and we definitely dovetailed as well as it is possible to do so in such a real time Q+A session. It is not for me to assess the merits of the arguments, delivery or impact of the 2 leave campaigners but I will comment on a couple of points at the end. 
I spoke first and last in the debate. I am conscious in my role as the local MP to try and set out in broad terms the nature of my arguments (as I always try and do so on the blog) - hence this detailed blog. As it is a Hexham Debate it is fair to address the points raised on their three key themes:

Justice: questioners wanted specific examples of how the EU has helped the Uk promote and support justice. 
-I explained that as a criminal prosecutor I had suffered years of problems with extradition claims that ran into many many years before you got the criminal back - if you ever did. But since the creation and implementation of the European Arrest Warrant this process was now a matter of weeks, as was seen in the examples of the 7/7 bomber who fled to Italy, only to be arrested and brought back in less than 50 days, with a trial within months. This EAW is a deliberate choice of the U.K. Government to give up some powers for the greater good which is a cross border legal agreement. 
- similarly the implementation of cross EU sanctions on countries like Iran had definitely had an impact in driving their hard line government to negotiate over their nuclear build up, leading to the groundbreaking 2015 Iran treaty in Geneva, a deal that changed middle eastern politics. I saw this first hand during the last 2010-2015 parliament, where we debated, and I spoke, several times on Iran. There is no way these 28 country sanctions would have had the same effect if all countries had been acting individually. 
These points were in specific answer to questions by TIm from Hexham and Jane from Acomb. 

On Peace I addressed the role that the EU had played in promoting peace these last 71 years since the end of the 2nd world war, following a great point made by Charles, from Riding Mill; he made the point that all of us in the room were the first for many many generations not to see major European conflicts. This lack of major conflict has been caused by many things, with a clear debt to NATO, but the benefits of economic cooperation, free trade, and prosperity by open markets, support for the new entrants, and so much more can be laid largely at the EUs door. 

The best example of recent times has been the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, where a racial, religious and territorial conflict was stopped by largely NATO muscle, but the aftercare and support for Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and the bringing of them back into the fold can be seen by the EU in so many different ways; to go to the former Yugoslavian countries now is to see a group of countries light years away from the state of terror that existed in the 1990s. 
Finally on democracy I tried to address in two ways the tricky issue of sovereignty. All of us want greater control over our lives, and over the EU. I urged everyone to read the actual agreement the PM secured as a result of his renegotiation (you can find it in my February blog post here: But I also stressed the changes that are happening more widely by reason of the U.K. referendum, which are palpable. 

I had earlier addressed: 
The economic argument - for which there was no reply from the Leave campaign; it is patently clear we will be worse off locally and nationally if we choose to leave. Whether you ask 
- the 600 economists, 
- the various expert independent organisations we look to for financial guidance eg World Bank, IMF, OECD, Bank of England, IFS, LSE etc etc
- or our allies like the USA, Australia, India or our European neighbours.
We are going to be a lot poorer - probably about £4000 per person. 
Put bluntly, as the constituency MP for 62,000 people,  I do not want my charges getting poorer on my watch. This is not a decision that Nissan, Egger or PWC would support. Of that I am certain.
I could not support such an economic outcome for the Hexham constituency. And the longer this debate has gone on, and the more I have debated with the leave campaign, the more overwhelming has been the argument that we are going to be significantly worse off if we leave. But, to be fair, the flip side is that this might be a price worth paying? So it is worth examining as I did in my opening the issue of sovereignty and control. 
On sovereignty I made the point that sovereignty is not like pregnancy, where you either are or you are not. If you want pure sovereignty go toNorth Korea. We, in the UK, make all our own decisions in Westminster on tax, benefits, health spending, schools, local authorities, military engagements in Iraq or the Falklands, and so much much more; but we choose to pool power in areas like farming, with the CAP, justice and the single market. In any event, even If we were to leave the EU then this would not create the glorious isolation, and compete sovereignty, the advocates of Brexit desire.  Britain is subject to some 700 international treaties involving multi-lateral submissions to multilateral compromises. Its membership of the UN similarly infringes its self-determination, for it can be outvoted there just as it can in Brussels. Likewise the WTO, NATO, the COP climate talks, the IMF, the World Bank, nuclear test ban treaties and accords on energy, water, maritime law and air traffic all require Britain to tolerate the sort of trade-offs that Eurosceptic out campaigners find distasteful: influence in exchange for irksome standardisation, laws and rules set mostly by foreigners not elected by Britons (regulations that Britain would not apply, or would apply differently, if left to its own devices). Yet it submits to all of these knowing that, as with the EU, it is free to leave whenever it wants—but at a price not worth paying.

This is precisely why the two models for a Britain outside the EU often cited by Brexiteers, namely Norway and Switzerland, constitute such weak arguments for Brexit. Under the Leave view, these countries are quite dramatically more "sovereign" than Britain. But in practice their economies and societies are so intertwined with those of their neighbours that they must subject themselves to rules over which they have no say. This exposes a false choice: in an increasingly interdependent world, countries must often opt not between pure sovereignty and the pooled sort, but—however distasteful the choice may seem—between the pooled sort and none.

On immigration the point is fairly made that both these non EU countries have higher levels of immigration than the UK, and are required to accept immigration and freedom of movement by reason of a desire to have access to the single market. They get many of the perceived burdens but without having a say in the decisions. 

Finally I addressed the democratic entitlement to peace and resolution of our problems - trying to address the concerns of the youngest person in the room, a 17 year old Hexham QEHS student. 
I am certain that we are best addressing these problems not from splendid isolation but as a group of countries. 
We are Better Together. The similarities to the Scottish referendum debate are overwhelming - (Scotland would be wealthier, more Scottish, more independent etc etc if only we could get rid of Westminster). But we are better off when we do not regress behind high walls and a protectionist, isolationist approach. 

Three final comments:
- My thanks to the Hexham Debates for the event and all the organisation that this process entails - it is never easy and these things take a lot of work. But please can I one day be asked to speak outside of a referendum and a general election? Perhaps on apolitical matters like prisons, and justice, or local banking, or even on international matters?

- There are further opportunities for debates locally in Northumberland or the wider North East, but the notable one is Hexham Abbey on Thursday June 16 at 7.30

- And the longer this debate has gone on, and the more I have debated the issue, the more certain I am that I am on the right side of the argument. We are StrongerIn.