Staying in Europe is about staying prosperous – but it’s also about who we are as a country

Labour Party

Based on a piece originally featured on the Huffington Post.

Earlier this week, at The People’s Pledge’s ‘Real EU debate’ in Westminster, I spoke in favour of Britain remaining in Europe. It was a lively event. Membership of the EU is an emotive issue, presented by Europhiles as a lifeline for the UK, and by Europhobes as a noose.

I believe, like countless others, that staying in Europe is the only way of securing Britain’s future prosperity. But for me these economic arguments run deeper, to the core question of what type of country we want to be.

It might be possible (if infinitely more difficult) for Britain to achieve prosperity outside the EU. But it would come at an enormous cost. To survive we would have to become more economically unfair and less globally significant – a poorer, more marginal country with narrower horizons.

The most immediate consequence of leaving Europe would be to effectively seal the fate of British manufacturing. As Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said last month, being part of the common market – to whom we sell around half our exports – is integral to businesses based in the UK. Outside of it we would become an “unattractive option” and companies like Nissan (which currently employs 6,500 at its Sunderland plant) would have to “reconsider” their strategy. It is likely that other firms, such as Airbus, would follow suit.

The financial sector, too, would struggle, and according to some commentators it would be difficult for The City of London to remain Europe’s business capital. Places closer to the heart of EU decision-making – such as Paris or Frankfurt – could take its place. Sir Martin Sorrell calls leaving Europe “disastrous”. He points out that Japanese investment in the UK is contingent on us staying in Europe. Trying to remain a trading centre while economically isolating ourselves would leave us permanently compromised.

In the longer term, with the EU currently working with the US to create the world’s biggest free trade area, Britain could become further marginalised. The CBI’s Director General John Cridland argues that being in Europe gives us a “springboard”, through unfettered trade agreements, with which to reach 500 million people and £15 trillion in profits. “We’d struggle to pull off deals of this scale on our own,” he says.

On top of this, the negative impact on higher education of Britain leaving Europe could be very serious. As Professor Paul White points out, this year we received 23% of EU Research Council Grants – more than any other country. Without this funding universities might have to downscale or increase fees – a move which would affect young people (the group, according to polls, who are least in favour of an EU exit) the worst. The insularity that withdrawal would bring could, White says, undermine our reputation as the second strongest higher education system in the world.

I therefore believe the notion we could leave the EU but carry on as normal is flawed. We would have to adapt. The only way I can see of doing this would be through a relaxation of tax rules and an effort to move from hub to haven. Big companies might be replaced by ‘boutique’ avoidance specialists and businesses enticed here by the chance to use the UK as a low tax trading base. The pressure on the government to reduce taxes – combined with the loss of the EU funding many of Britain’s regions receive – could create worse public services and more inequality. As David Marquand puts it, to survive Britain would have to become “a market state…a harder, more selfish and, above all, nastier society”.

So for me the Europe Question goes beyond prosperity; it relates to the deeper issue of who we are as a country. Do we want to embrace a fairer, more modern world or will we consign ourselves to narrow-minded irrelevance? I believe this is a no-brainer; as I will continue to argue all the way up to the European Elections in May, Britain needs to be confident and outward-looking enough to see the wood for the trees when it comes to Europe.

My thoughts on the EU referendum debate on Iain Dale’s LBC evening show

Labour Party

On Friday I took part in a discussion on the EU referendum on Iain Dale’s LBC evening show. My fellow guests were Mark Seddon, Kate Hoey and Petros Fassoulas. In light of yesterday’s debate  I thought you might like to have a listen:






England is the best country to host the World Cup

Labour Party


I have been following with interest the recent Panorama investigation in to leading figures within FIFA and the allegations of bribery.  It seems uncertain now whether or not this story will impact our bid for the 2018 World Cup, I hope it doesn’t and Michel Platini doesn’t think it will, but we have to maintain the BBC’s right to journalistic independence and if the allegations are true then they should certainly be exposed.  I think it would be wonderful for England to host the World Cup, just as it is such a boon for London to host the 2012 Olympics, but we can’t suppress the reporting of corruption just for the sake of this opportunity.

FIFA is obviously a very powerful, supranational organisation that maintains a massive amount of independence from governments around the world.  This is probably for the best, but looking at this situation made me think of the work that bodies such as the EU can do in terms making sport fairer and more accountable.  Within the next month or two the commission will be releasing a communication on sport that will put forward a number of proposals that will hopefully go some way to dealing with some of the major issues facing sport in Europe.  The first of these is player’s agents, which is something that has marred the reputation of some sports (I’m thinking of football in particular here) in recent years.  Due to the many levels of authority that exist in the sport world at the local, national and international level, you can see why there is so much confusion in the regulations surrounding the representation of athletes.  I think what we have to bear in mind is that people usually enter sport at a very young age and they need to be protected.  Hopefully their families can offer them support, but sometimes this is not enough.  Agents must be held to account and I think they should be required to pass exams and gain licences, which could be revoked for misconduct.  I wouldn’t mind seeing a licensing system run by FIFA or UEFA, or other relevant sporting bodies, but for it to be effective it would have to be mandatory.

I hope that we can introduce some legislation that will properly protect professional athletes across Europe.  Sport is such an important part of all our lives, whether we are professional athletes, amateur enthusiasts or just keen observers, so I think we should be making sure that the sports men and women who we look up to and inspire us are properly protected and represented.  I am very much looking forward to the Commission communication on this and hope to work closely with them to see that we achieve the best result possible.

FGM – A European Issue

Labour Party

FGM/C (female genital mutilation/cutting) is a controversial and divisive issue which tends to spark strong feeling from those on all sides of the debate. This practice, which in my view is deeply abhorrent, is typically associated with countries such as Somalia and Nigeria. Yet what most people fail to realise is that this harmful custom is also increasingly affecting girls and women in parts of Europe, including the UK.

While figures on FGM are patchy (particularly in Europe as it is often not reported to authorities), it is nonetheless estimated that almost 130 million women throughout the world have been subject to mutilation. The UK has in recent years seen a rise in the numbers of cases. A study by the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development estimated that 66,000 women living in England and Wales had been circumcised, usually prior to leaving their country of origin. The 2003 Female Genital Mutilation Act is supposed to protect girls and women taken overseas for the purpose of genital mutilation; yet, shockingly, there have been no prosecutions under the law to date.

In order to raise awareness about this issue, I was asked to host an event yesterday in the European Parliament, ‘Abandonment of Social Norms Harmful to Girls and Women’, which focused on the practice of FGM. It was organised by UNICEF, and brought together speakers, predominantly women, from all over the world. I opened the event with a few words about how the problem of FGM has been addressed at the European level. Others, such as Francesca Moneti, who is a Senior Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF’s office in New York, spoke about how the practice has been impacting upon women generally.

While there is currently no harmonised EU legislation on FGM, the EU has nonetheless made some important gains. The EU-funded Daphne programme, which seeks to combat violence against children, young people and women, has been the prime source of funding for awareness-raising, prevention, and protection of those who experience, or are at risk from, FGM. As of September 2008, it had financed 14 FGM-related projects, involving a total of €2.4 million.

During the past two years, The European Network for the Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation (EuroNet-FGM) has supported the establishment and development of National Action Plans for the elimination of female genital mutilation in 15 EU countries. It also organised an International Conference on Female Genital Mutilation in the EU, held in Brussels in April 2009.

The problem is that measures like these, while praise-worthy, have so far been ineffective in stopping FGM in Europe. So what more should we expect of the European Union? In a 2008 report by the Women’s Rights Committee, it was suggested that a European Health Protocol should be established to monitor the numbers of women who have undergone FGM. It is true that the gathering of scientific data might be an important tool to assist efforts in ridding the world of FGM. Yet before that can happen, I believe that all European governments should publicly recognise the problem of FGM in Europe and bring it up as a key issue at all levels. One opportunity to do this would be on ‘International Zero Tolerance to FGM day,’ which began in 2003 and takes place on the 6th of February.

However, simply denouncing FGM and condemning perpetrators cannot alone bring about the necessary change. FGM will only disappear if people, both women and men, are satisfied that they could give up the practice without doing away with important aspects of their culture.  For this to happen there needs to be more dissemination of information and appropriate education about this issue.

A Good Day for Europe

Labour Party

So we now have a result.  Mr Van Rompuy was in the end not much of a surprise.  He will, I am sure, do a competent job and be respected by his fellow heads of government.

Cathy Ashton was, it has to be said, less of a surprise to those of us involved in European politics than to many of the pundits back home.  She proved to be an excellent Commissioner.  In addition to her obvious intelligence, Cathy is hardworking and possesses a rare ability to bring people together and achieve consensus.  If you heard her on the Today programme this morning you will know exactly what I mean.  Congratulations Cathy and all the very best in your new role.

Although I made no secret of my support for Tony Blair to be appointed to one of these major posts, I am nevertheless cheered by the outcome.  Although it is certainly a stitch up, it is one which makes sense and will use the talents of both individuals to good effect.  We have one small member state and one of the larger ones, one man and (at last) one woman, one centre-right and one centre-left   We also have a Briton in one of the highest posts.  At last, we will be at the heart of Europe in reality, holding a top post and therefore having to fully engage with the EU agenda.

And this agenda, it is clear, is no longer working to bring about further European integration.  There is little doubt that although the appointment of a  British woman to the High Representative position signals the acceptance that while the EU fully intends to make its presence felt on the world stage, there will be no further significant moves towards integration across the member states.  Europe will undoubtedly grow wider with the accession of more Easter European countries such as Croatia, but no deeper for the foreseeable future.  Whether or not Turkey will be admitted is, of course, another matter.  If Mr Van Rompuy has his way, the answer will be no.

It is a new chapter for all of us, within the EU institutions and the member states.  I just hope my optimism will be justified in the longer term.



I gave this speech in the European Parliament last week:

 “I am very pleased indeed to have this opportunity to discuss this debate. It is only unfortunate that we are doing it on a Thursday afternoon when it is not quite as well attended as perhaps it should be.

 maryspeaking2“I do think this is an important debate in the context of the current economic climate. We have already heard discussion about culture and jobs and how culture industries and people working in culture can contribute to the economy and can really help. At the precarious times we are facing now – which we have heard already in this Parliament – it is important that we discuss these matters as fully as we can.


“I am here also because I do actually represent one of those big cities that the previous speaker mentioned. London, as you all know, is one of the cultural centres of the EU with – as we all have – enormous history and very much to offer. It is also the centre of, certainly the British, cultural industries. So I think I have a role here to speak for the people that I represent and to fight for those jobs which, when things get bad, are very often the first jobs to go. So I very much welcome what the Commission has said about the role of cultural industries, about how we want to preserve and to build on those and how there is an economic role for culture. I feel that, very often, that economic role is ignored, and we do not talk about it; we do not even think about it, and we relegate culture to second-class status. That is not acceptable, particularly when culture can be so very important in our national and regional development. I hope that one of the things to come out of this debate today – that we take back to our Member States, and the Commission and the Council take back – is that we are very concerned about how this regional development happens, how we deal with this and the role that culture can play in that.


“Also, as Mrs Pack has already said, there is the whole question of cultural diversity. I think one of the great strengths of the EU, and of the European Parliament, is that we all come together – now with 27 Member States – and are actually very different, in many ways: different backgrounds and cultures, and obviously different languages. That is just a start. Although the world is getting smaller and although people come together more, there are still these significant differences. We should be celebrating them, because those differences are at the very core of the things that we talk about. We all want to preserve our identities and how we feel about ourselves, and we need to do that.


“In this context, I think we also need to take on board that we are getting people coming into our continent. We are getting people from other parts of the world – many of whom are now in second and third generations in some of our Member States – who come from different backgrounds again. I think we also need to take on board that they come with their own culture, tradition and languages. Although we integrate them and they learn our languages, they are still there with their own separate identities. That is an issue which has not been mentioned in this debate, which I think is an important one and one that we, I hope, can integrate, particularly when we talk about issues such as multilingualism, which we have had good debates on. It is an extremely important issue, and I think one we should perhaps give more prominence to than we have done, but in the context of a Europe which is changing. We therefore need to preserve our existing cultures and our existing diversity and actually absorb the new diversity which has come, and which is continuing to come, into our continent. For all of these reasons, I welcome the support that we are giving to culture and to cultural industries, support to small and medium-enterprises, which I think – in the current economic climate – are possibly going to be the backbone of what we will be looking at. If large corporations and large enterprises are losing people, making people redundant and laying people off, it may well be up to the smaller outfits – the SMEs – to pick up this slack and to actually go out there and create employment for those who can work in this sector.


“So I hope we will all recognise just how important the role of culture is in our continent and our society and that those of us who have actually turned up for this debate will take the message back to our Member States, to the regions and to the people we represent. I know we have got a good message to say, so let us go out there and spread the word.”