To Brexit or not to Brexit

In November 2013, when I was selected to be the Conservative candidate for Wealden by nearly 400 residents at an open primary, one of the first questions I was asked was my position on the European Union. I said then what I have always believed, that I am sceptical about the benefits of UK membership of the EU. I do of course understand those who argue that membership is about selling more goods and services, accessing markets and completing deals. On that basis being part of the EU is a transactional relationship where the benefits and liabilities can be totted up on a balance sheet to reach a conclusion as to whether it's a positive or negative for Britain. You will hear much of this argument in the debate to come and my view is that, if we are honest, it's impossible to prove either way. Will we be able to negotiate a better trading relationship outside the EU given how badly Europe needs our business? I believe so but I can't prove it empirically. Will we be subject to less bureaucracy and greater freedom to decide how to run our economy? I can't imagine otherwise. Will we contribute less to the EU budget if we aren't members and will we be able to reallocate money to our priorities rather than ones set in Brussels? I'd like to understand why that wouldn't be the case.

However, this is not the way in which I personally believe our continued membership of the EU should be decided. When David Cameron went to Brussels last year to start the process of renegotiating our relationship with the EU he had my wholehearted support. I stood for election on a manifesto commitment to do just that and then to put the choice of whether to stay or leave to the British people. It was absolutely right to wait for the outcome of the renegotiation before reaching a final view on how I would vote, after all as a mere backbench MP I have the same one vote as everyone else. Like most of my constituents this is the first time I have had a chance to have a say on Britain's relationship with the EU and I hoped that a deal would be offered to make me want to stay. But while the Prime Minister almost certainly got the best deal available I am not going to pretend I haven't been disappointed at every stage by what Europe's leaders were prepared to give. For me the over-riding issue is and always has been the question of legitimacy. Or to put it another way, do the decisions made in Brussels command the support of the British people? The answer before the renegotiation was a very clear no, and I'm afraid the answer post-renegotiation is just as an emphatic no.

Take immigration. Now I am no little Englander, I am the product of immigration and proud of it. In my maiden speech in the House of Commons I said that Britain was at her best when her face was turned to the world and that the debate over Europe must not make us inward looking. We are a global trading nation, and I passionately believe that we have to be open to immigration to continue to be successful. But to be able to be open to the world our people need to know that we are in control of our borders. They need to know that the numbers of people arriving here can be supported and that we, as a nation, have collectively decided who should come and what the terms of their arrival and stay are. People need to know that our immigration policy is legitimately decided by their elected representatives, not some faceless unaccountable body in a foreign town.

Or take the right to veto EU laws that are not in our national interest. Brussels has offered up the prospect that we will in future be able to block new EU laws if we persuade another 15 countries’ parliaments to join us. But this is a long way from where we were before the Lisbon Treaty and with it the removal of Britain's sole right of veto in up to 60 policy areas that have nothing to do with trading in the single market, ranging from the environment to transport. Not only did the last Labour government give up these rights when it signed up to Lisbon but now the European Court of Justice has started to use the Treaty to challenge our ability to decide our own justice and home affairs policies where we thought we had an opt out. The growing constraint on Britain to decide its own approach to issues such as prisons and policing is a dagger at the heart of sovereignty and a huge blow to the legitimacy of our Parliament.

The truth is the EU has faced a massive crisis of legitimacy of its own for many years. And it's a crisis that could envelope us all. Forget the fear of leaving. For me the real fear is remaining in a club whose members devise rules to constrain others and toss them away when it suits them, leading to chaos and disorder. Much is made of the protection the EU offers in a complex globalising world. Where was that protection when Greece was admitted to the Euro? Where was that protection when France and Germany bust through the Euro deficit limits and encouraged others to treat with complete disdain the rules designed to stop excessive government borrowing, thus amplifying the impact of the financial crisis? Where is the protection when one nation within a borderless zone unilaterally opens its borders to mass migration and makes its problem everyone else's?

These questions go to the heart of the decision I have made to vote for the UK to leave the European Union. The Prime Minister has done his best but Brussels was not prepared to give up sufficient control over our sovereignty to make our membership of the EU legitimate. And its dysfunction and disorder make staying as we are the truly risky option. We need a radically different relationship with our European neighbours to reclaim our sovereignty and with it the legitimacy of our law making. I believe now that the only way to achieve that is first to leave. We are not casting ourselves adrift, we are merely asserting our right to start this relationship again. I recognise that many of my own constituents will have very different opinions and I welcome the debate to come which must be open and without acrimony. No one who supports either point of view cares any less for our country than the other. And when the decision is made we must come together for the good of the country. We still have an economy to secure, a deficit to conquer, houses to build, schools to improve, prisons to reform. And whether we stay or leave, these are the challenges a Conservative government under David Cameron will continue to address.