European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill Debate: Speech

‘Having originally been elected on a slender majority of 582, I certainly understand that we have to accept the outcome of democratic elections, however narrow the margin, but I must admit that I was surprised by the leave result ​in the West Midlands, given that the region is in substantial trade surplus with the EU. Of course, I am delighted that the automotive industry has achieved so much success that it exports 82% of all its cars, mostly to the other 27 countries of the EU.

‘The subject of immigration dominated the conversations I had on the matter, even when standing outside the gates of the car factory. No distinction was made between EU and non-EU migration, which each account for 50% of migrants. I worry that our electors expect that taking back control will mean that very few migrants will arrive here. However, our history as an empire means that there are family obligations to non-EU migrants and an absolute obligation, through the Geneva and The Hague conventions, to provide safe haven for the most vulnerable people, many from countries for which we drew the lines on a map.

‘I heard mixed motives for voting leave. Some second-generation migrants told me they did not want any more coming in. Article 50 will be triggered and we will be in uncharted waters, trying to negotiate the things that are vital for our success. Access to our principal market is key. The car industry is desperately short of engineers, and its success will be choked if it cannot get the skilled labour it needs. If we are honest, migrants are more willing to do some jobs, such as picking fruit and vegetables. A spring onion producer told me he cannot rely on local labour to get the harvest in. We must ensure that horticulture is not destroyed by taking back control without being able to meet the demand for labour. These are not easy things to say in public, but we are about to make a momentous decision, and, as the Prime Minister says, we have to make a success of it. That will only be achieved if we are honest about some of the problems we face.

‘I am no starry-eyed Europhile. The political leadership in Europe failed to inspire its citizens about the benefits of working together. Other countries are seeing the rise of extreme right parties that promise to solve their problems. This goes beyond Europe. The leadership of the rich nations around the world are struggling to find answers to the impact of globalisation for the low waged. In America, Obama tried to extend healthcare to the poorest, and here we have the introduction of the living wage, but maybe we need to look to places such as Scandinavia for better models of wage equality and fairness in society. Those are the big questions left when we exit the European Union and we will need to answer them in our own way.

‘I expect that the EU will change after we have left, because it must collectively try to find answers to the big questions of globalisation, mass migration and robotics. By contrast with the US, we have decided to turn outward, not inward, partly because we have to and because our heritage is one of trade and exploration. I hope the electorate will be patient, but they will judge our efforts on their experience, not on our rhetoric. I hope that all that is great about Britain is not sacrificed in pursuit of an unrealistic ambition to go back to some mythical time when we were in control of all we surveyed’.

The Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP