I lead a double life, deep in the Suffolk countryside which was once my constituency and then my working week in London, the world’s greatest city. It makes me intensely proud of Britain – both for its natural beauty and environment, and for its enterprise, worldwide trade, and solid economy.
I want to keep it that way. Indeed, make it better not just for the fortunate but for all. And that’s why I passionately want us to stay in the EU. First, for the countryside. It’s not surprising that every major campaigning group from Friends of the Earth to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says we should remain. They’ve seen how much being in Europe has done for our environment. We would still have sewage on our beaches if we hadn’t worked in the EU to clean things up on both sides of the Channel. One side wouldn’t have worked.
As secretary of state for the environment, I saw how being in the EU made it possible to stop being the dirty man of Europe. Because we’re a market of 500 million, we are big enough to insist on cleaner cars and lorries, we can tackle air pollution and rescue our seas from plastic litter. We can’t do it on our own – half our air pollution comes from the continent and we push half we produce over to them. It’s together or not at all. What Pope Francis has asked us to do for the environment in Laudato Si’, we can’t do effectively outside the EU.
But it’s not just our environment, it’s also our lifeblood – our trade. Free trade in Europe is crucial to us. It’s 40 per cent of our exports when it’s only eight per cent of the EU’s trade with us. Outside, we’d have to rely on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules which would put tariffs on all our goods and services. No wonder every reputable economic organisation from the International Monetary Fund to the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the CBI says leaving Europe would be very damaging. In the wider world, it would make us much weaker.
We’re one among nearly 200 nations in the WTO. Our voice is small. Decisions are made between the US and the EU. Inside the EU, Britain leads the trade pack and we are a big part of framing the world’s rules. So, in the EU, Britain has greater power, more influence, and, by that, more sovereignty.
But why, as a Catholic, am I so fervent about being in the EU? Well, it’s fundamentally because I’m asked to love my neighbours. You don’t love your neighbours by standing aside in a superior way and intervening only when you see fit. You get in there and work for a better life for all. That’s why, with all the EU’s faults, the Catholic Church has generally supported our membership. Inside we are stronger, Europe is stronger, and we are stronger together to do good. It would simply be wrong to weaken our influence by leaving. We could do less for others and less for ourselves. Nato defended the West but it is the EU that has kept the peace, bringing into democracy those ex-communist countries. We must not take that for granted. The Gospels say we must use all our talents to the best of our abilities. That means not opting out or being sidelined.
It’s the same with climate change. We’re committed to reducing our polluting emissions, but it’s hard. On our own it could make us uncompetitive. In the EU action is possible and effective. We are leading Europe to deliver the Pope’s urgent message in Laudato Si’, and it is Europe that has led the world. Cutting ourselves adrift would purposely make ourselves less able to do our duty. Self-harm is wrong.
Although Mr Putin wants us out, all our friends want us to remain in the EU. The US President, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India – they all want Britain in. Ireland, in particular, wants us to stay. Otherwise they would have to reinforce the border and introduce tariffs, undoing so much of the good work for which we’ve all prayed.
Christians have a duty to side with the poor and vulnerable. It’s there in the heart of the Gospel itself. The weight of the evidence and the advice of the experts is overwhelmingly that our people will be poorer, food will be more expensive and jobs will be lost if we leave the EU. The leave camp has failed to produce a single independent reputable organisation that says leaving wouldn’t damage our economy.
Leaving would hurt the poorest most. No wonder the overwhelming majority of young people say remain. It is their future, their peace and their security we threaten if we leave. Give them the best chance. Remain.
Lord Deben was Britain’s longest-serving Secretary of State for Environment
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