Thank you very much, Chairman. May I begin by congratulating the Committee on the nature of this meeting today? It is probably the first time that the SNP and the Conservatives have created a joint platform in support of this particular campaign. Whether it is a precedent or not, time will tell.
As I think we are all speaking in our personal capacities, perhaps I should say to the Committee where I personally am coming from. Historically, I have found it difficult to be on either end of the spectrum on this issue. When I was Foreign Secretary, Le Monde once described me as a “eurosceptique modéré”, which is a combination of qualities I was quite happy to go along with. What I have tried to do for each of the issues involving the European Union is to look at the costs and benefits of each sector of policy. So far as today’s discussion is concerned, on foreign policy and Britain’s place in the world, I have not found it at all difficult to come to a judgment, because I believe that the benefits are very substantial; I think the costs are at most minimal, if not insignificant. Let me explain what I mean.
The way in which any country conducts its foreign policy is to use its power when it has power and, when it does not have power, to try and expand its influence. When it comes to the European Union, we have both power and substantial influence. The power we have should not be underestimated. Of course, qualified majority voting does not apply. There cannot be a foreign policy position of the EU unless there is unanimity, and our veto has two effects. First, it means we can prevent any European foreign policy position that we do not like. Secondly, also because we are a member of the EU, we can prevent the EU adopting a foreign policy position that we do not like. There can be no European view if any country objects to it, and the United Kingdom has that power.
When it comes to influence on the more positive side, when there are objectives we are actually seeking, then, along with Germany and France, we have more influence than any other country. We have seen the importance of that on issues like the Iranian nuclear negotiations and the sanctions against Russia, where Europe has made a real difference to the global position—one that would not have been achieved in the same way without the United Kingdom.
The irony is, if we were not in the European Union, such are the common strategic interests between Britain and the rest of Europe that a lot of our foreign policy effort would have to be devoted to trying to influence the European Union, of which we were no longer a member. There is no geostrategic threat to France or Germany or continental Europe that would not also be a threat to Britain, as we found both in 1914 and in 1939. So we would be in the extraordinary situation of having given up the power to either control or influence policy, but seeking as outsiders nevertheless to influence it anyway, because the outcome would be very important to us. I noticed that a columnist in the International New York Times remarked of Britain, “To be alone against enemies in 1940 was heroic. To be alone among friends in 2016 would be”, in his view, “absurd.” I think there was a point.
I have noticed that the Brexit campaigners argue that, if we were liberated, we would somehow be able to influence events. I have not quite understood, apart from the rhetoric, what that is supposed to mean. Who is going to be influenced in a way that they are not being influenced by the United Kingdom at the moment? Who are the potential candidates? The United States have made it clear that they do not want Britain to leave, because they see our role as part of the EU as important to them in influencing the European Union position.
Both the old Commonwealth and the new Commonwealth take exactly the same view. They want the United Kingdom in the EU, not outside it. They will not be pleased, not be impressed, and will not devote more time to our views if we are outside. So far as NATO is concerned, it is the same. The only people who would rejoice are the Russians, and perhaps one or two others like the Russians. They want the fragmentation of Europe and they would see this as the first major step.
Let me conclude, because I know time is short. I will just say one final thing. The world is becoming, as we all know—this Committee knows more than most about this—global. The big decisions over the years to come are going to be taken more than anything by the United States, by China, by India, by Russia and by the European Union, whether we are in it or not. Is it seriously being suggested that the United Kingdom, with 65 million people—less than 1% of a world of 7 billion—is going to have more influence by itself than as part of the European Union?
My very final point is this—we can get carried away sometimes. I remember when Albania was communist. Its dictator, Enver Hoxha, whose only ally was China, said to his people, “We are very important people. Together with China we represent a quarter of the world.” Let us not make the same mistake of saying that, with our 65 million in a world of 7 billion, somehow we are not strengthened by being part of the European Union when it comes to foreign policy and the costs and benefits of leaving that Union.
I, too, will start with a personal journey on this. It is important to understand that I was born in West Germany. I am probably one of the few British politicians who does not regard the word “federal” as an F-word. I know these things are perfectly possible, but I also know what it requires for it to work. I spent two years as a Health Minister in the Council of Ministers. I spent 15 months trying to negotiate a European constitution on behalf of this Committee, by the way. When the constitutional convention was formed, it was this Committee that sent representatives and it was our duty to bring the European Union closer to its people. I think it literally was in July 2003 when, after all attempts, I reached the conclusion that this institution actually did not wish to be democratically accountable; that it was incapable of changing.
Looking back now, I think the trajectory of where the United Kingdom peeled off in some way started off with our refusal to be part of Schengen and our refusal to be part of the euro. Today, we are in a position where no one, even from the in campaign, is actually prepared to defend the institution of the European Union. We can be talking about the benefits of membership of an institution that no one appears to be able to defend for its merits.
Can we just talk about the institution? It was very interesting that Michael Fallon, in particular, started to talk about being part of an alliance. That is true as part of NATO. We are part of the IMF and we are part of all other kinds of alliances and groupings. What is different about the European Union is that it is an institution that requires legal supremacy; none of our other alliances do so. In the context of a House of Commons inquiry, I would urge colleagues to think about democratic accountability and where it is going. Before 2010, the House of Commons used to have debates on a Wednesday before the Prime Minister went off on a Thursday to the European Council. We used to have fisheries debates and agriculture debates. They have all gone. We have not only increasingly given more areas of decision making, but this place itself is simply not taking an interest or using the ability to influence and shape some of these decisions.
That then takes me to why I now say we should leave. Let us be absolutely clear: if the Prime Minister had not called a referendum, I would not have sent off an application form to UKIP; I would have said, “Let’s work.” The Prime Minister calls a referendum. As recently as before Christmas, he says that of course it is perfectly okay for the United Kingdom to thrive and be a confident country outside. I am not entirely sure what has happened in the past four months that it was perfectly possible to be a confident country outside then, but now it is doom and gloom and the most utter irresponsibility to say no.
It is a once-in-a-generation chance to make a decision. I look at this institution that was formed in the times when there were big blocs—as Malcolm Rifkind quite rightly says, there was the cold war, the east bloc, the Americans—and Europe thought we needed to form our own bloc. I suggest there have been three waves of globalisation. The one in goods started with the formation of the WTO. Even when people talk about the single market now, increasingly the European Union becomes the organisation that hands down WTO decisions to member states. The second one was the global flow of capital, and we saw how incapable we were of dealing with that in 2008. The migration crisis we see now is actually the third wave of globalisation, and we are incapable of dealing with that. When I am then asked if I think I am going to endorse this institution, which nobody appears to be prepared to defend and which is democratically unaccountable, in my once-in-a-lifetime vote, I say no—I think we should vote leave.
Thank you, Chair. Not only do I find myself, for the first time of my life, speaking with Malcolm on the same side, but I find myself surrounded by Conservatives—something which is physically impossible in Scottish politics, incidentally, Chair.
Chair: And, indeed, Scots.
Alex Salmond: I notice you have three Scots and a German giving evidence to this Committee, trying to deal with the anguish of England. I am sure we will do our absolute best.
I am for Remain. I think this country’s future is inextricably connected with Europe. I do not rate the campaign that has been conducted thus far. I am not talking, of course, about evidence to this estimable Committee; I am talking about the broader campaign. I feel it’s almost like “Project Fear” from the Scottish referendum has been split in two—one side arguing for Remain and one side arguing for out. I find that the arguments are not those that I would support. I don’t think the plagues of Egypt will descend on this country if it decided to leave the European Union. Equally, I don’t take the fantastic propositions of the evils that will befall us if we remain in the European Union.
I rather take the view that Malcolm alluded to: I think that if we didn’t have an institution like the European Union, we would find it necessary to invent one. No doubt we would invent one with many imperfections, but one would be necessary to deal with the challenges that we should and must meet on a continent-wide basis.
I hope that, in evidence, I can bring to the Committee some practical experience. Obviously, as First Minister of Scotland, I dealt with the ambit of domestic policy over a seven-and-a-half-year period. Last night, in preparing evidence, I was thinking of whether I could identify things that were so constrained by the European Union and the acquis communautaire that they caused great difficulty. I can think of only three: fishing policy, minimum pricing on alcohol, and I wish I had introduced a living wage beyond the public sector in Scotland. But each of those are capable of being dealt with, and they certainly would have been dealt with had we had the powers of a member state. In contrast, I can think of a whole range of policy initiatives of the Scottish Government that were assisted and enabled by our membership of the European Union.
My position is that an institution like the European Union would be necessary for us to invent if we didn’t have one. This country’s future is bound up inextricably with Europe, and we should embrace it. It is said that people are not prepared to defend the European Union. Well, I’m prepared to defend it—not because I think it is a perfect institution, but because it has, on a range of policies, achieved a great deal, and with effort and will it could achieve a great deal more. On the issue of practical experience, as opposed to phantoms in the night or bogey people in the cupboard, I hope to be able to offer this Committee some insight.
For me, the whole issue is one of sovereignty, so it is not possible for me to disaggregate the concept of sovereignty from all the other issues related to that, in terms of foreign and security policy. I want to live in a free and independent country, and for me the positive benefits of leaving the European Union are to get control of our law making, to get control of our borders and to get control of the use of our own money. For me, those are prizes worth having, even if there is a price to pay.
I fundamentally do not believe in the concept of supranationalism. I do not believe that we should voluntarily give up our identity and be subjugated to any degree whatever by a legal authority, rather than a co-operative organisation. I do not believe that we can talk about Europe and the EU as being the same. One of the things that has irritated me profoundly during this campaign is people talking about Europe and the EU as though they were one and the same. Europe is a continent with individual nations with their own identities and their own heritage. The EU is a short-term political construct, in my view run for those at its centre, with precious little regard for its citizens or the consequences of its actions.
I’m not one of those who says that everything the EU has done is bad. For example, I think the ability to help bring Spain, Greece and Portugal from military dictatorships into the democratic family of nations was an important step. I think the ability of the EU to act as a beacon for the countries that were under Soviet tyranny and show them that there was an alternative future of freedom, democracy and free markets was very important, but I do not believe that the European Union and those at its centre understood the consequences of the fall of the Berlin wall and the new world that was on the other side of that.
I do not believe that we have a reformed EU; I think it is an unreformable EU, because those at its centre do not want it to be reformed. I think they are going against the grain of history, and if they will not bend, they will break.
I also believe that there are more risks to the United Kingdom in remaining in the EU than in leaving. In particular, I think that the “unfinished business”, as the Governor of the Bank of England called it, of the completion of monetary union poses big risks for the UK. If there were risks before the Prime Minister’s renegotiation, they have got bigger now because we have given up our veto when it comes to the process of de-risking the euro and what might happen in the eurozone. It is like being in a modern driverless car, but one not attached to Google.
I also think there are security risks to us in continuing in the EU because of what is happening with migration and the security risks that will come, as inevitably many of those who have come into Europe gain citizenship over a period of time, if we have the unlimited free movement of people that we have at the present time.
I agree entirely with Gisela, but I think that the fundamental move here was when the eurozone was created. At that point, the eurozone started to leave us and that was the fundamental shift in the plates that we are seeing widening at the present time.
I totally agree with Malcolm that the world is becoming more global. We have moved from the bipolarity of the cold war through the so-called unipolar moment of the US into a very different world with multiple power centres, even though they are still largely asymmetric. But I think the era of the bloc is diminishing and the new era will require us to have greater flexibility, and the restrictive nature of the structures of the European Union will diminish our ability to take advantage of that new global dynamic.
At a time when we need to be forward and upward looking, the European Union remains backward and inward looking, spending far too much time gazing at its own navel and far too little time thinking about the future of European citizens, particularly the young, who have been sacrificed on the altar of the vanity of the single currency.