19 February 2016

What would In and Out really mean? Why the terms of Brexit or EURemain are all important

By George Freeman

In the age of the 24/7 news cycle, nuance is difficult. Whether in the US presidential election or the EU Referendum, everything gets boiled down to the false negatives of overstated extremes, and the binary choice: Trump versus Sanders, populism versus experience, In versus Out?

But as the Prime Minister’s tireless Herculaen negotiation with our European partners comes to a head, and the public debate about whether we should leave or remain in the EU looms, there is a question every bit as important as In or Out? It is: ‘on what Terms?’. As with any marriage, separation or divorce, the terms of conduct are everything.

Does ‘Out’ mean slung out of the saloon bar of Europe like some whisky-breathed cowboy sprawling friendless and humiliated on the dusty road? Or moving gradually to a carefully negotiated near-neighbour ‘privileged trading partner’ status? Does ‘In’ mean we will be at the top table of Europe with renewed respect and authority to drive our reform agenda and create a European Union fit for the 21st century? Or with the threat of departure gone, will ‘In’ mean the Eurocrats can ignore us and we are cast to the back of the EU class on the naughty step for daring to question its legitimacy? There is every difference in the world. The variety of outcomes within ‘In’ and ‘Out’ are just as important as the stark choice between them.

The same is true domestically: will a UK ‘Out’ vote led by an English majority against the will of Scottish (and Welsh?) voters trigger the break-up of the United Kingdom, leaving not the UK outside the EU but just Little England?

We need a much more considered debate about the ‘terms’ on which In and Out are understood by our partners. And a debate which seriously looks at our place in the world and what role we can play in the future. This is a time for serious geo-political statemanship, not the shrill shallow self-interested factionalism of UKIP, the SNP or the EU idealogues. This decision is arguably the most important for the future of our country in modern times. The judgements within it are not straightforward.

Just as the extraordinary pace of globalisation frames the challenges to an increasingly uncompetitive and bureaucratic EU, so too does it frame the challenge for us in the UK. Do we want a weak or strong Europe in an increasingly unstable global context? Do we care whether Brexit destablises and weakens the EU? What is in the UK’s widest long term best interests? As a rapidly ageing, structurally debt-laden economy off the coast of Western Europe, how do we see our role and our security in a world of exploding population, geopolitical tensions, mass migration, Islamic extremism, Middle East tension, a remilitarised China and Russia and a United States looking increasingly to the Far East?

I believe the competitive challenges posed by globalisation and the emerging economies also create a massive opportunity for a new cycle of growth for the UK. By investing, as the Chancellor has done, in our science and innovation and embracing a bold model of enterprise economics in the public and private sector – what I have called ‘The Innovation Economy’ – we have a chance to turn the pace of growth and resource pressure in the rapidly industrialising economies to our advantage as markets for our innovation. Indeed, I have long argued that to drive a new cycle of growth in our economy we must look beyond the sclerotic Eurozone and to the fastest growing emerging markets. We have the science, technology and enterprise strengths to build the companies and technologies which will be essential to allow rapid industrialisation around the globe to be sustainable.

In my field of bioscience and the ‘bio-economy’ we have the technology leadership in the three key markets of food, medicine and energy to export Britain’s world-leading research and technology to help ‘feed, fuel and heal’ emerging markets to allow them to go through the same Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the next thirty years that we went through in three hundred.

It is a phenomenal multi-billion pound market opportunity. And one that as the UK’s first ever Minister for Life Sciences I am committed to us seizing. It means us using our public sector procurement and every lever of Government to drive global investment and exports. And we are winning: since launching our Life Science and Agri-tech Industrial Strategies we have attracted £6bn of inward investment, creating 17,000 jobs, secured over £5bn of new healthcare exports, and raised over £1.5bn in early stage venture capital for new companies last year alone. These are big wins. How would these numbers be affected if we were to leave the European Single Market?

Too often EU red tape holds us back, with some of the most innovative biotechnology companies leaving Europe because they are unable to commercialise their innovations. That’s why I’m leading a programme for reform of EU bioscience regulation, warning the EU Commission that, unless Brussels embraces radical reform, over-regulation risks condemning Europe to a new dark age of anti-science and to miss the dawn of a new age of global biotechnology.

That risk should mean that most life science companies and entrepreneurs favour Out, right? Wrong. Scientific research depends on collaboration, and the network of European Governments, Universities and companies investing in 21st-century science and innovation means we are part of an EU science superpower. The vast majority of our scientists and companies want to be inside a more pro-science and more innovative EU.

But in the end it all comes back to the terms of any #EU:InOrOut? decision. For the Out campaign there is all the difference in the world between being cut-off from the largest single market in the world; having to painstakingly try and negotiate trade deals with every country individually. Or negotiating our way to a privileged ‘near neighbour’ trading status, where we still have access to the single market yet are freed up to create our own rules and regulations with regards to the innovative and enterprising new technologies Britain excels in. Similarly for the ‘In’ case: would we be in with added or diminished influence once the Referendum is past?

Only the two extremes in this debate are clear: Britain can neither afford to be stuck at the back of the queue in a largely unreformed EU, nor can we afford to be cast into the wilderness and restricted access to the largest single market in the world.

If we are to be the entrepreneurial Innovation Economy prospering in the 21st-century that we need to be, we need to be able to commercialise our most innovative ideas, continuing to enjoy the benefits of trade with Europe while being able to export our technologies and knowledge to the fastest growing global markets.

Politicians and businesses across the party divide can agree on this vision. The question now is how that vision can best be delivered?

We need a debate which gets beyond the false negatives of the risks of simple In vs Out, and instead recognises that the terms on which they can realistically be negotiated is just as important. Both domestically and globally.

We don’t operate in isolation. Everything must be negotiated in the end. Neither a vote for In or Out will wave a magic wand and make the world an easier place overnight. There are no shortcuts on the long road to becoming a more innovative, entrepreneurial and global trading nation again. If only.

Either way we will need to work with our EU neighbours and global partners to negotiate deals based on compromises. We mislead ourselves and the people we serve if we allow the EU debate to suggest there are any easy shortcuts to global influence.

George Freeman MP is Minister for Life Sciences at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department of Health