25th February 2016

Sir Nicholas Soames's speech in the debate on European Affairs, Thursday, 25th February 2016.


Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): Let me first congratulate the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on their speeches. I warmly congratulate the Prime Minister and his negotiating team on their courage and tenacity. I include especially my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who had to bear much of the heat and burden of the day. This was a remarkable achievement, and I wish it well. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central said, it is now for the British people to have their say, and have their say they will.

This is the 70th anniversary year of Churchill’s speech on the cause of a united Europe at Zurich on 19 September 1946. It has always struck me as ironic that that speech has been claimed by both sides of the European argument as being some sort of holy grail. I am daily on the receiving end of some vile emails and whatnot from people telling me that I am a traitor to my grandfather’s memory.

Mr Baker: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. May I say that although I disagree with him profoundly on this issue, I regard him with the utmost respect? He has held these views for a very long time with complete sincerity, and people disgrace themselves by their insults.

Sir Nicholas Soames: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend.

Of course, Churchill’s was a speech of great prescience and great vision. It was also a speech of the most profound analysis. Unlike most other hon. Members, I would like to reflect at a little more distance on Britain’s experience of the European Union and, in particular, my party’s long-standing commitment to the European cause.

It is worth the House reflecting for a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, on the tragedy of what Europe must have looked like in 1945. It is only the winking of an eye in terms of time and history. It was only 71 years ago that the Germans surrendered to the allies and signed the instrument of surrender. It was only 70 years ago that the Russians drew down the iron curtain on a broken and suffering eastern Europe. Behind that line, in the wicked grip of a ruthless regime, lay all the great capitals and states of eastern Europe—Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Bucharest and Sofia.

Most of the rest of continental Europe lay shattered and broken, after six years of war, for the second time in 25 years. There remained a vast mass of bewildered human beings, who gazed forlornly at the wreckage of their homes, their nations, their lives, their families, their possessions and everything that they loved. But from that awful scene of desolation, sadness, ruin and despair a little over 70 years ago, something truly remarkable has been achieved, which has brought freedom, security and prosperity way beyond the dreams that anyone alive at the time could ever have contemplated.

Not only have the sovereign states of Europe risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of two world wars, but they have created of their own free will a European Union of 28 members comprising the biggest and most powerful single market in the world—one of 500 million people—in which we travel with our fellow Europeans in prosperity and peace in an era of constantly expanding co-operation, prosperity, security, safety and freedom.

When the cold war ended and the Berlin wall came down on that glorious, cold 9 November 1989, the Warsaw pact collapsed into dust without a shot being fired. Most of the eastern European countries joined the European Union, and most of them also joined NATO. Indeed, only six countries that are members of the European Union are not members of NATO.

Why did they join? Because the Europe and the NATO that they joined were and are prosperous, secure and free, and they wanted as soon as they could to find shelter in the institutions that had benefited from a period of peace, stability, freedom and security unprecedented in 1,000 years of European history. They hoped that it would protect them from a still predatory Russia. There is no argument but that the EU was absolutely central to those developments, and it is a very great credit to our country that we should have played such a leading role in seeing all this through.

The European Union has achieved a very great deal, but it cannot and it must not allow itself any self-congratulation in these very difficult times. Although we can see that the ice has melted on the landscape of the second half of the last century, and that power in all its forms has shifted and is shifting rapidly and unpredictably, we know how inadequately most of the institutions of the European Union have coped. This must be remedied.

As we look across Europe at all the achievements it has to its name, the pervasive mood is one of insecurity, lack of confidence and lack of optimism. Those characteristics are not found only in Europe. The troubles of Governments everywhere speak to the anxieties of their electorates and, sadly, to the mistrust in their politicians, their institutions and their leaders. The public across Europe know only too well that the world of easy answers, instant solutions and declaratory statements is a construct of fools, politicians and the media. As power shifts so rapidly and unpredictably, one might almost believe that we are today at the start of a new history.

Nowhere are these difficulties, insecurities and lack of understanding more obvious than in this country of ours. I am always wary of trying to work out what Churchill might have thought today, because I think it is an impertinence to do so. The one thing I absolutely know is that as the world has grown bigger for Britain, the opportunities greater, the chances more glittering for our commerce and our people, so the people who practise politics and government in this country, and especially those who write about it, have a sadly cramped and limited view of Europe and the rest of the world.

In this campaign, one of our most important tasks—all of us, whatever side we are on—is to remind our fellow citizens that we share a region, a climate, much of our history and demography, our economic space and our culture with the countries of the European Union, something that Churchill pointed out very clearly in his Zurich speech. Our business corporations, our leisure time, our intellectual and cultural life are all intertwined with Europe’s. We face shared problems in endless comparable ways. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) rightly mentioned all the environmental issues on which Europe has been extremely effective.

However, our political and deeply shallow media do not engage with any of that, or, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central pointed out, with the interests—vital to us—of our European partners, allies and friends. At least, that was the position until very recently. Now the media have finally woken up, like the great, slack monster they are, to the awesome prospect of combat, newspaper sales and competition as each side of the argument tries to persuade our fellow citizens of the right way.

I rejoice at the Prime Minister’s extraordinary achievement in Brussels, and I commit myself to making the same case to the best of my ability whenever I have an opportunity to do so. I am struck by the scale of support for the European Union from British commerce and businesses both large and small, and especially—in an important letter, published in The Daily Telegraph yesterday—from four former Chiefs of the Defence Staff and other former service chiefs, who drew attention to the great importance of the EU in the security sphere.

I believe that the case to remain is overwhelming on all fronts, but there is no point in pretending that the European Union does not face many major challenges that it has to find a better and more effective way of resolving. The refugee crisis, for example, has made the EU look deeply ineffective and purely reactive. It is clear that Schengen cannot survive without the most dramatic reform, and that the external borders of Europe need to be strengthened rapidly. None of us can feel happy that the European Union, which has brought such great stability to much of the European continent, now appears to be weak and uncertain. Its unpopularity matters, and it is damaging.

My hope is that our Government will seize the moment, and that, having rediscovered the great value of extremely energetic and skilled diplomacy, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Minister for Europe and others will really push ahead in the EU to drive—along with like-minded colleagues and friends—the big reforms that Europe must swallow. They will find willing friends who want to do the same. There is a huge agenda to which Britain can play, and in which it will play a leading role. On economic reform, on security, on energy, on defence and on foreign policy, there are practical and radical steps that can be taken.

May I finally indulge myself, Madam Deputy Speaker, by recalling the end of Churchill’s great speech to the Congress of Europe in The Hague in 1948, remembering that the founding fathers of Europe, with a noble vision, built this astonishing edifice on firm and very lasting foundations? This is what Churchill said at that conference:

“A high and a solemn responsibility rests upon us here this afternoon in this Congress of a Europe striving to be reborn. If we allow ourselves to be rent and disordered by pettiness and small disputes, if we fail in clarity of view or courage in action, a priceless occasion may be cast away for ever. But if we all pull together and pool the luck and the comradeship—and we shall need all the comradeship and not a little luck…and firmly grasp the larger hopes of humanity, then it may be that we shall move into a happier sunlit age, when all the little children who are now growing up in this tormented world may find themselves not the victors nor the vanquished in the fleeting triumphs of one country over another in the bloody turmoil of…war, but the heirs of all the treasures of the past and the masters of all the science, the abundance and the glories of the future.”

Those of us who fight the good fight to remain will do so with confidence, but also with humility and profound respect for those who hold long-standing views that are very different from ours, and in the sure knowledge that this issue is about the fundamental place in the world, for a generation to come, of a confident, open, engaged, pro-European Great Britain. Faîtes courage!

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Thursday 25 February, 2016   
Volume 606
No 120. Col 511

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