The EU referendum on 23 June will be the biggest political decision in Britain for a generation. I believe that Britain is stronger, safer and better off in the EU.
In its 2000 year history, Europe has known only 70 years of peace.I was born in 1967 in Coventry - just 22 years after the end of World War Two. Coventry was heavily bombed and its cathedral destroyed. My belief that we are stronger in the EU has its roots in that experience. Coming together in the aftermath of the war, the EU’s founding fathers acted on a simple desire to replace war with talking and trade.
Britain is an outward-looking, confident nation that embraces its role in the wider world. A vote to remain will make sure that we stay that way. We need to have a high-skill, high-wage economy to prosper. Our membership of the EU is key to our prosperity. Three million jobs and £226 billion of UK exports depend on our trade with the EU. The CBI has warned that a vote to leave could cost 1 million jobs. The governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney has said a leave vote is the Uk’s “biggest domestic risk”. Professor Stephen Hawking has said it would be a disaster for science.
The challenges we face today require our collective strength not a retreat into narrow nationalisms. Global economic shocks, the refugee crisis, terrorism, and climate change are problems that we will solve together or not at all. And the EU underwrites our social protections as workers,and consumers and our environmental protections as well, which is why the TUC has spoken out for a vote to remain alongside the Labour party.
Last year Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si. In it, he reminded us of our duties to protect our planet and to tackle the poverty of those who live on it saying
‘We must hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’. I believe that we hear both those cries and can act better if we remain in a group of nations working to collective goals in solidarity together.
The EU has more influence globally with the UK as a member. And as a member, the UK has more influence globally. Our voice in UN discussions on the Paris climate change talks was amplified because we were part of a club of 28 countries.
The EU has been a catalyst for progress in Britain and the world, especially in the areas of women’s equality, and environmental standards. The EU not only guarantees rights and protections, but provides us with a platform to champion change at home and abroad.The British people are an outward-looking nation. The Drop the Debt campaign showed that we care passionately about the lives of women and men who live in poverty thousands of miles away, but have the same aspirations as we do.
And this referendum could be decided by women voters. There are 1 million more women voters in this referendum than men. Polling shows that women are twice as likely as men to still be undecided about their vote on 23 June, with almost a quarter still to make up their minds. So much is at stake for women in this referendum.
The EU has done a great deal for UK women. EU law prohibits discrimination in the workplace on grounds of gender, age, ethnic or racial origin, religion or belief, disability or sexual orientation. It ensures equal pay for work of equal value, a fight long forgotten by younger women but memorably documented in the film Made in Dagenham. The EU underpins maternity (and paternity) rights, and the right to return to work after maternity leave.
Working women also benefit from the right to sick leave and time off for urgent family reasons. Women are more likely to be in part-time, fixed-term and agency work. Thanks to the EU, we now enjoy rights to equal treatment in line with full-time permanent employees.
The EU does more than advance women’s rights and protections at home. This referendum is also about the world that we want to create and our solidarity with women struggling in developing countries. The EU’s drive to tackle violence against women goes beyond our borders with its work to eliminate female genital mutilation, working with African countries and the UN.
On April 18th, I will be hosting the second Fashion Question Time event in Parliament, in association with Fashion Revolution, a global movement calling for greater ethics, sustainability and transparency in the fashion industry. At last year’s event, we heard how the EU has worked closely with the government of Bangladesh to change employment laws and improve factory standards after the Rana Plaza tragedy which killed 1100 garment workers in 2013. By playing a leading role within the EU, the UK fashion industry can punch above its weight, achieve change and improve the lives of garment workers - predominantly women - around the globe.
And there’s another reason for staying in the EU - to protect the Earth, our common home. Our rivers, beaches and special places would pay the price if we voted to leave. Scientists declared in January that we are now living in the Anthropocene age. Humanity’s impact on the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and wildlife has, they argued, pushed the world into this dangerous new epoch where we have changed our planet.
Britain is a world leader on the environment and tackling climate change and has played a pivotal role in the European Union on this issue. Global temperatures are on course to rise by up to 6.4°C by the end of this century, unless we take action now. The UN Paris climate talks in December produced an ambitious and historic agreement to reduce global greenhouse emissions. British leadership on climate change from within the EU was crucial during the talks.
In 1995, the UK was the dirty man of Europe. Some 83% of our household waste went to landfill and just 7% was recycled or composted. By 2014, thanks to a series of EU directives, the UK’s recycling rate had reached 45%. The UK currently recycles 90% of construction materials, well ahead of other countries.
Some 99% of our beaches now comply with EU minimum standards on cleanliness. Gone are the days of my childhood when I emerged from the sea at Blackpool covered in oil! Seaside towns also benefit as cleaner beaches mean more tourists and stronger local economies. In 2014, the Environment Agency estimated that the net benefit in England and Wales of implementing the EU Water Framework Directive by 2027 was £9bn.
The EU has cleaned up the UK’s air. Between 1970 and 2014, UK nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions fell by more than two-thirds, reducing the risk of respiratory diseases. Over the same period, sulphur dioxide emissions in the UK dropped by 95%. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that bringing the UK in line with EU emissions directives will have a net benefit of £1.45bn by 2020.
Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, recently heard how the Chinese and Indian governments have invited the European Commission and UK companies to help them to clean up their rivers and air pollution. So cleaning up the environment creates jobs and opportunities for UK companies around the world.
Biodiversity loss is another significant environmental challenge the EU faces. The Birds and Habitats Directives are the bedrock of the EU’s nature policies and have enabled the recovery of species like buzzards, twites and white tailed eagles. The Natura 2000 Directive obliges the UK government to provide protected nature zones which provide a range of life enhancing and life enriching services for people, animal and flora alike.
EU environmental legislation means a better deal for consumers. Phasing out inefficient incandescent lightbulbs through EU legislation has saved British consumers £110 on their energy bills every year. Higher standards on new car efficiency have saved UK customers billions in petrol and diesel costs. New car annual fuel consumption is set to be half of what it was in 1997 by 2020.
Just as its equalities legislation guarantees a bedrock of rights for women, EU legislation helps keep our environmental standards on track. It forces successive governments of whatever colour to maintain a long-term view and gives businesses the certainty they need to invest in the right things.
As well as the economic and environmental case, we must also make the case for our shared European values and our shared culture. A culture which embraces and celebrates British fashion, food, football, music, films and university research in a European context. A culture that allows young women and men to live, study and work abroad. And the risks to those vital sectors of our economy and our cultural life if we leave.
If we leave, we will have to implement EU environment and equalities legislation without a seat at the table and a vote in decisions. When the UK can lead from the inside, why would we take the risk and walk away into an uncertain future? Why would we opt for the Norwegian, Swiss or Canadian model when the British model, in the EU but outside the Euro and Schengen zones, has served us so well for over 40 years? No country has ever left the EU so how can those campaigning to leave say what the future will look like? How do we know that a UK vote to leave will not lead to calls for similar votes in France, Denmark and Slovakia, and trigger the collapse of the entire European project? What future would our children have in a continent of nation states, raising trade barriers, shunning their neighbours and blaming refugees for the collapse in their living standards?
The EU, like all politics, is a cumbersome, bureaucratic, imperfect system. But it is the longest and most successful peace process the world has ever seen. It has transformed historic enemies into neighbours and trading partners. It has acted as a beacon of hope to those labouring under the yoke of communism and dictatorship in Spain, Portugal and Greece. It has cleaned up our air and our rivers, protected consumers and workers and driven investment, innovation and prosperity.
I and my Labour colleagues want to see Britain playing a full role in shaping a reformed Europe which deepens its single market, offers more jobs and hope to its young people. A Europe which uses its collective strength in trade with the rest of the world and which stands together to combat the urgent security problems we face. It would be a mistake for Britain to relegate ourselves to the second division and volunteer for or embrace some kind of second class or associate membership of the EU while still paying the full costs of membership. That would be an outcome which weakened Britain rather than strengthened our position.
To leave would putting at risk decades of progress that we have achieved by working together with our neighbours - be it on women’s rights, environmental standards, or maintaining peace inside our borders. Britain is a more powerful, prosperous and secure country by being a member of the European Union.
The evidence is clear. People in Britain benefit from our membership of the EU, while our country has a greater voice on the world stage and the collective strength from working with neighbours to tackle the global challenges of the 21st century. If we are to play our part in ensuring a green future for the UK and the world, we must vote to remain.
First published by the Catholic Universe on 31st March.