Charlie Morris interviews Steve Baker MP, co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain, a eurosceptic group of MPs and party members, with close links to fellow eurosceptics, Business for Britain.
Here, he explains who explains why, when it comes to Europe, the status quo is out of the question. If the EU doesn’t reform, he says, Britain must leave.
Charlie Morris: What has struck me is that the Outs are more passionate than the Ins. Why?
Steve Baker: Those of us on the side of leaving the EU and taking control are passionate believers in self-determination, which you can call liberty. Those who wish to stay, it seems to me, are of noble intent but are often being merely conservative.
One of the fundamental things to absorb is that there is no status quo on the table. We know the eurozone will need to federate to make the euro work. That means there is going to be fundamental change in our relationship because we will not be joining the euro. So even if people are merely conservative they have got to face up to the reality that the European Union is going to change in ways which are hard to predict.
Charlie: It strikes me that the Ins on the left like the social chapter and the working time directives, whereas the Ins on the right think the risks of leaving too high.
Steve: Yes, I think that caricature is about right. The Ins that want to stay in on the right are typically optimistic about state power. They see the European Union as entrenching their third way politics of a market economy with heavy state intervention and therefore it’s a very good thing and we should continue to advance this integration.
They necessarily have faith in collectivism and the state. I think those who wish to leave on the left are typically much stronger on democratic accountability for political power. Although I might disagree with them profoundly on the kind of policies they adopt, I do agree with them that power should be under democratic control. So somebody like Kelvin Hopkins sees the EU as a neo-liberal project entrenching market economics and so forth. I disagree with him about that.
Charlie: The left-wing Outs see the EU as too capitalist and too right-wing?
Steve: I think that’s true. It’s one of the unique achievements of the EU is that it seems to be capable of upsetting democrats on both sides of the free market argument.
Charlie: Many believe we could, given time, succeed on our own. It’s a matter of time. In terms of pain, would there be a ten-year transition, a short transition or no transition at all?
Steve: When it comes to talking about pain, I think one of the great reference points on this comes from Lord Rose, who is the chairman of ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign, who made a speech and spoke to The Times and said that if we left there’d be no change at all. That it would be years before we noticed the difference.
Now this is one of the problems that the In side of the argument have. It is that their chairman has explained that the transition process would be relatively straightforward. They have really neutered their own side of the argument there, by Lord Rose making the comments that he did. I think, realistically, everybody involved wishes to make sure that we have the least possible pain. But those who wish to stay in think that the way to win is to scaremonger.
We have heard all of these arguments before over the euro. The sky was going to fall in and the world was going to end if we didn’t join the euro. Nobody would join the euro now who isn’t in it already.
Charlie: Describe ‘Business for Britain’ and its roots with ‘Business for Sterling’ in the late 1990s.
Steve: Some of the same characters are involved. Business for Britain was a creation of Matthew Elliott at a time where it became apparent that there was going to be negotiation. He created it for business people who wanted to see profound change or exit.
Charlie: What were you expecting from the prime minister’s letter?
Steve: It is thin gruel.
When you look at what I set out when we launched Conservatives for Britain, I was always pretty clear that the EU wouldn’t give us anything that was really fundamental, like the ability to unilaterally block EU laws with which we disagreed. I knew we wouldn’t get that. We need the ability to conduct our own free trade deals but there’s a common EU commercial policy, so I didn’t think we’d get that. And we need the ability to have British migration policy made in Britain on the basis of British citizenship rather than EU citizenship. I didn’t think we’d get that either.
In many ways it is disappointing but it meets my low expectations. It feels like the government has retreated in order to come up with a negotiating position where they can deliver anything. The reality is that it is not in any sense a fundamental change.
Charlie: Mark Fields MP described the letter as the ‘art of the possible’.
Steve: This is mere conservatism. I am a Conservative MP and we like to avoid discontinuities and radical changes. But when something is profoundly wrong as the EU obviously is now, you do need sometimes to say – actually, we aren’t going to tolerate this.
The foreign secretary said that the status quo was not acceptable and not in Britain’s interests. We could trot out a whole range of senior members of the government who were saying that the EU as it is, isn’t in our interests. But now that fundamental change isn’t possible, we seem to be capitulating and giving in.
There does come a time occasionally in our history, where you have to say: “No, that is not how we wish to conduct our international relations”.
The art of the possible is all very well. I wish to be reasonable and pragmatic. But look at the EU. Look at the levels of youth unemployment in a place like Spain. We don’t want to get in the way of them doing what is necessary to make it all work, but that requires a political, economic, fiscal and monetary union of those countries in the eurozone. The prime minister’s policy is that we want to get out of that ever-closer union, so it is actually the Government’s policy not to be wrapped in to what the EU needs to do.
What I think we‘ve got here is a battle between hearts and heads. The hearts of most Conservatives tell them not to have anything to do with this project of ever-closer union, but to govern ourselves. The heads are all about saying: “what is the minimum we can do in order to make everything fine?”
Well, I think the minimum is quite substantial now. Boris Johnson has said he wants a unilateral veto for Parliament over EU laws we don’t like. The foreign secretary has said that’s tantamount to leaving. I’m afraid we need a little bit more clarity about this, and I’m trying to bring it by saying it time to for us to end the automatic supremacy of EU law in the UK, and Parliament should be able to set the law in the UK.
Charlie: The letter discussed governance…
Steve: Many of the things the prime minister is asking for are either meaningless or trivially easy to achieve.
Charlie: The letter discussed competitiveness…
Steve: That’s a point Lord Lawson has made. We heard all that before.
Charlie: The letter discussed sovereignty…
Steve: Heard it all before. John Major came back from Maastricht talking about subsidiarity, but what you discover is that the EU simply doesn’t believe in subsidiarity. It believes in centralisation, directives and regulation and conformity – that is, harmonisation.
Charlie: The letter discussed immigration…
Steve: There is no chance of change in the free movement of people. I must say this is critically important. People talk about discrimination, but they are conducting policy and the terms of their debate on the basis of EU citizenship.
The reality is that in a constituency like mine, where a large minority of people have family outside the EU, they see the present immigration policy as discriminating fiercely against them and their families and in favour of people from within the EU. They don’t identify with the common European citizenship, and they would like British migration policy not to advantage people from elsewhere in Europe.
The old liberal dream of the free movement of people is a wonderful, noble ideal but it’s increasingly obvious today that it’s impractical, naive and incompatible with the security threat that we face. Incompatible with the state provision of welfare, which is why the prime minister is going after benefit changes, and therefore we should be realistic and make British migration policy in London. And do it for the sake of the large number of British people whose extended families are outside the EU.
Charlie: Please explain the justice and home affairs comment?
Steve: One of the things that defines a nation state is a common system of law and justice. That is the direction of travel of the EU, to have a common set of justice and home affairs policies. Common human rights and so on.
Again if you are in favour of European political integration, these are noble ideals, but many of us object to the European arrest warrant because standards of justice in Eastern Europe are not at the levels they are in the UK. Yet you can have an arrest warrant issued elsewhere in the EU.
I don’t think it’s right that you can be arrested in the UK and taken for trial in another country, potentially for something that is not an offence in the UK. That presently could happen. There have been miscarriages of justice where people have had to campaign.
It is important that there is international judicial cooperation. Bearing in mind we are talking in the context of this disaster, this atrocity in Paris. It’s obviously critically important that there is international police cooperation. It is obvious that it needs to be on a global basis. But it’s not adequate to conduct it on a European basis. I’m not willing to have an arrest warrant that allows you to be extradited to say, a North African country, on the say-so of a North African court. You have to draw the line somewhere and say this is not acceptable.
I think we should have British courts, British judges, and British laws made by a transparent and accountable parliament. I’m only slightly paraphrasing what the PM said in the Commons about the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Again, Conservatives do believe in our parliament, our democracy, our judges and our laws. We do think it’s important that the British people are able to control those laws and that parliament at the ballot box, and not find themselves subject to arrest and extradition on the say so of a foreign court. It’s a fundamental issue of our liberties.
Charlie: Does anyone in Conservatives for Britain think that the euro project can survive?
Steve: My own view is that there is a problem with the way the currency is constructed. The euro is more likely to survive if it was combined with a fiscal union, which is what the chancellor has said.
Our view is that we do not want to get in the way of the eurozone doing what is necessary to make the euro work. It is not in the UK’s interest to see high unemployment and economic failure in the eurozone, therefore we would like them to have the opportunity of doing what is necessary to make it work.
Instead of us being foot-dragging members of the EU, constantly pulling away from doing what’s necessary, we think we should leave and get out of those arrangements. Let them do what is necessary and then trade and cooperate with them on a new basis.
I’m a bit reluctant to pronounce on the survival or otherwise on the euro. I think it’s important that all these currencies work well and that people are able to flourish and prosperous. But personally, I’m pretty pessimistic about the euro.
Charlie: Can you name a Swiss prime minister?
Steve: No, I can’t.
Charlie: No one can, because it’s a little role, not a big role. In that sense, we are not Swiss are we?
Steve: There’s an interesting conversation to be had about diversity and constitutions. The Swiss system does seem to me to be profoundly decentralised. It seems that most of us who believe in liberty want decentralised power.
Somebody like me wants government to be limited and, in so far as it’s necessary to exercise power, we need to exercise it as close to people as is practical in order that it be held properly to account at the ballot box. This is simply something you cannot do in the EU. It’s something they are much better at doing in Switzerland where they have referendums on important questions much more frequently.
I understand from talking to [Conservative MEP] Dan Hannan – who gets around these nations much more frequently than I do – that the campaign to join the EU is basically dead in Switzerland and Norway. There are a few people who would like to be in, in order to have a greater degree of influence over the EU rule-setting process. But if you want power to be close to the people, don’t join the EU.
• We’ve got the second half of that interview tomorrow when Charlie talks to Steve about the impact of an EU referendum on the question of Scottish independence.
In the meantime, if you’d like to read Charlie’s piece on Brexit.