Speech by Hilary Benn MP, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary
13 June 2016, Church House, London
We meet here today with just 10 days to go until the referendum.
A referendum not just on our membership of the European Union but also on Britain’s place and influence in the world.
Our great country - our astonishing country - is one of the most successful in human history.
With less than 1% of the world’s population, we are its fifth biggest economy and generate 4% of its GDP.
Our language is spoken by 1.5 billion people worldwide, more than any other.
Our literature, our theatre, our films, our actors are loved the world over, from Shakespeare to J K Rowling and from Mark Rylance to Idris Elba.
Our universities attract the brightest and the best.
We have more Nobel laureates per head of population than the United States, Germany or China.
British broadcasters are respected in all four corners of the globe for their impartial reporting.
And we have helped to influence and shape the modern world through the power of our ideas and values.
Our system of governance.
The rule of national and international law.
A free media.
And the belief that every human being has rights that are inalienable.
Ideas that have been a beacon of inspiration to people who enjoy none of these things.
This did not come about because we turned our backs on working with others. It transpired because we embraced others, travelled, traded, built alliances, were open to new ideas and welcomed new people.
Britain’s story, our unique history as an island nation, has been shaped by how we have always looked beyond our own shores and engaged with the wider world.
And because we did so, Britain is not only successful but is today one of the most influential of all countries.
The building we meet in was an important part of that journey.
Here, 70 years ago on 17 January 1946, the United Nations Security Council met for the very first time with Britain as one of its permanent members.
A week earlier in the Central Hall, just across the road, the UN General Assembly held its inaugural meeting.
Arising from the ashes of the Second World War, the nations of the world came together to commit to high ideals and human rights and resolved to give them effect through dialogue and negotiation.
The roots of the European Union also took hold in those same ashes and drew upon those same principles.
And by the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community - bringing former foes together – its founders resolved to make a return to conflict on the continent of Europe - in the words of the Schuman Declaration - “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”.
This vision was the most eloquent and enduring memorial we could have built to the flower of two generations of young Europeans who gave their lives in war and now rest eternal in those immaculately cared-for cemeteries. And it is the inscriptions on their gravestones - their names, their ages, the unknown soldiers - that to this day call upon us, the post war generation, to do everything within our grasp to stop that slaughter from happening again.
These and the other great institutions fashioned in the aftermath of the Second World War were a conscious effort to establish a new world order.
And that hope has, on our continent, been fulfilled.
Europe is at peace.
And for more than forty years, Britain has been at the heart of the European Union.
A Union of 28 free democracies working together that has proved what human beings can achieve when we replace conflict with cooperation and enmity with dialogue.
A Union that has brought prosperity and founded the world’s largest single economic market.
A Union that helps protect our security and has made us among the most stable and safest countries in the world in which to live.
Indeed, if all of humankind could cooperate, trade and work together as the nations of the European Union have done, then there would be more peace, more prosperity and more progress on this earth.
And it has given Britain a stronger voice in the world.
Britain leads in Europe, from trade to climate change, from good governance to debt relief for the poorest nations, and in turn Europe helps to lead the world.
And so I say to those who advocate that Britain should abandon the European Union that they bear a very heavy responsibility to prove their case.
Over the past few weeks and months, it has become clear that their argument rests on the economic costs of EU membership, immigration and sovereignty.
And I wish directly to address each of these in turn.
Now that the Leave campaign’s claim that EU membership costs us £350 million a week has been utterly discredited, they seek to argue that there will be no cost to Britain's economy if we leave.
They are wrong. They are dangerously wrong. They are playing fast and loose with people's jobs, their livelihoods and their families' incomes as they try to lure us onto the rocks.
They recklessly deny the clear benefits to our businesses, workers, consumers and our national wealth from membership of the single market which, let us be clear, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove have all said they want to walk away from.
And yet it is the benefits of membership of the single market that are precisely why every survey of business opinion, why the Bank of England, the IFS, the Treasury, the IMF, the OECD, the World Bank and 90% of independent economists say that leaving the European Union would damage our economy and end up costing Britain money, not saving us money.
The single market allows British businesses to do business with 500 million consumers, increasing tenfold the number of people to whom we can sell our goods without tariffs, just as if we were selling them here at home.
This open trade benefits the economy. It generates taxes which help pay for our NHS, our schools, our pensions, our housebuilding, our infrastructure and our welfare state. And yet the Leave campaign are prepared to see our economy suffer which would mean that we would have less money to spend on all these things we cherish.
If we leave, we will have just two years in which to negotiate not only a new trading relationship with the European Union, but also with the 53 other countries we currently have trade agreements with because we are members of the European Union.
If we failed to do so, we would then have to fall back on World Trade Organisation terms, as Nigel Farage has himself admitted.
What would this mean?
It would mean that every one of the nearly 2,000 cars a day that we currently export to the European Union would face a 10% tariff.
It would mean that our service industries which make up 80% of our GDP would be plunged into uncertainty.
How could leaving the single market possibly be good for the British economy?
How could Britain leaving the single market possibly encourage inward investment, remembering that we are the most successful country in Europe in doing precisely that - more successful than France and more successful than Germany?
How would it help to sustain jobs?
The simple answer is that it wouldn’t.
And that tells us it is the influence we have as a member of the EU that shapes our economic relationships with others; influence that we would cast aside if we walked away.
And it is not just the economy and trade.
Let's talk about immigration.
For many people, immigration is the issue in this referendum.
They feel our country has become too crowded, that our services are under pressure, that we are losing our identity and that leaving the European Union would restore control over all of these things.
It is a feeling that is palpable in this campaign but so too are these truths.
We have an obligation to be honest with one another about the nature of the world in which we live, and about the changes that have happened and will happen whichever way people vote on 23 June.
Immigration into Britain will continue whether we stay or go, as the Leave campaign have now admitted.
Indeed Nigel Farage’s contradictory promises, as we saw yesterday, simply don't add up. And anyone who thinks that voting Leave will bring the numbers down significantly will in time be bitterly disappointed.
Free movement is part of the deal and the reason why so many people have come here from other EU countries is because jobs are available. Jobs that need doing and jobs that, if it had not been for this migration, employers would have been shouting about because of the difficulty they were having in filling them. Vacancies for doctors, nurses, lecturers, factory workers, chefs and waiters, receptionists, scientists and cleaners.
Britain has always welcomed those who wish to come here to work, to live and to contribute.
Just reflect for a moment on the greatest social challenge that confronts us; the demographic time bomb that will see the number of people aged 65 and over rise by nearly five million over the next two decades.
Already, one in five of our care workers come from outside the United Kingdom – from Europe and the rest of the world – and we will need more carers as more people need looking after.
When my father came towards the end of his life, most of the people who cared for him with such patience and gentleness had brought their care from abroad to this country.
And in the years ahead, it will be our turn to be looked after.
And as well as providing that care, we will need to pay for it, which is why it is utterly irresponsible to advocate a course of action that will lead to a weaker, less strong and less prosperous economy. This would damage our public services and make it more difficult to deal with, as we must, the pressures that immigration brings.
The truth is that leaving the EU is not going to stop immigration. Our economy will continue to need its contribution.
And, of course, immigration works both ways.
Over a million British people have chosen to live and work in other EU countries. This too is part of the deal.
Leaving the EU would make it much harder for them and us to travel, study and work elsewhere in Europe; that right might disappear completely. What a lost opportunity for the next generation that would be.
And fundamental to the strength of the British economy is the freedom to bring in new talent and creative minds from abroad as well as to draw on the huge home-grown reservoir of those same skills and talents to build new businesses that employ workers in Britain and buy goods and services from firms in Britain.
The truth is we are a nation of migrants.
From the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans.
From the Jews fleeing persecution to the Irish fleeing famine.
From the Windrush generation and those who came from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to work in the mills and in manufacturing to their present day equivalents from Poland, Lithuania and Romania.
And even some Americans, I would add, being the proud son of an immigrant from Ohio.
And one of the greatest things about our country is the way in which over the generations these successive waves of migrants have mixed and melded and married until it is almost impossible to untangle the threads of the journeys that brought them here.
But this does not mean than any of us, whether born in Britain or born abroad, feel any the less who we think ourselves to be. We are proud of who we are - English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, British, European - and in that very British way, we get along.
The question people ask is this. Will we continue to see these levels of immigration? Is there any limit? Well, we can influence the level, but not in the way the Leave campaigners think they can.
The number who come will be determined by the size and strength of our economy and the jobs available.
The number can be affected by measures such as preventing rogue employment agencies from only advertising jobs overseas, stopping exploitation and undercutting and ensuring that migrant workers make a fair contribution before they receive in-work benefits.
And we have the ability completely to control the terms on which any new EU member state joins because we and every other EU country has a veto. We can set the conditions we want, including on free movement.
When it comes to the separate issue of refugees, as the Syria crisis has taught us, the challenge will be to tackle conflict successfully, prevent dangerous climate change, and play our part in helping developing countries to become more prosperous so that people can see a better life for themselves and their families where they were born rather than somewhere else.
Whether we are in or outside of the EU, when crisis strikes - war, drought, flood, disease - if people cannot survive where they are, they will do what human beings have done since the dawn of time - move in search of a better life.
And how we deal with this brings me finally to sovereignty and to what it means to be sovereign in the modern world.
The Leave campaign claim that we have somehow lost absolute sovereignty and can regain it.
Here too they are wrong.
We are still a sovereign nation. A sovereign British Parliament joined the Common Market, a sovereign British people voted to stay in 1975, a sovereign House of Commons has agreed every treaty change since and a sovereign House of Commons will abide by the decision of the British people in 10 days’ time.
We are not in the Euro. We are not in the Schengen free passport area. We are excluded from ever closer union.
And yet we still wield great influence in the European Union.
We led the argument for widening membership to offer a welcome to the former communist states of Eastern Europe who looked to the EU as a wonderful expression of freedom.
The single market was our idea, and part of the reason for qualified majority voting was to prevent other member states from continuing to protect their own markets to the disadvantage of our businesses and our exports.
We are on the winning side in the Council of Ministers the vast majority of the time.
The truth is that pulling up the drawbridge and quitting the EU will not enhance our national sovereignty.
All it would do is to weaken it by taking away our power to influence events in an ever more complex and interdependent world. It would hinder us from responding to the changes and the challenges that this century will present us with.
What is the point of absolute sovereignty if you cannot exercise it to achieve what you want? It is a phantom form of sovereignty. An imaginary wall made not of bricks and mortar, but of smoke and mirrors. Smoke that will dissipate the moment it comes into contact with events.
Will it help us have a more peaceful and secure world?
Will it help us stop dangerous climate change, which unchecked would devastate Britain, an island nation, surrounded on all sides by rising seas that respect no notion of sovereignty?
Will it help us to be more secure when we know that it is working together that is the best protection against aggression and is the best means of keeping us safe from terrorism?
Will it help us make the most of the wonders that lie ahead as science and technology, industry and ideas change the world in ways that today we can only dream of?
The answer to all these questions is no.
What will - as 21st Century Britain – great and powerful – has shown is being connected to other nations and building relationships with other nations.
What will is sharing some of our sovereignty with others to our mutual benefit.
Now of course, as in any relationship, sometimes you get what you want and sometimes you don’t.
It's a bit like families. But it's not an argument for walking away because together we are better off.
But, the Leave side then say: “We can stand alone” and “Britain can be great again.”
Well I say Britain never stopped being great and can be greater still in future.
It is the Leave campaign who are doing down our country, even though we lead in the UN, NATO, and the Commonwealth as well as in the EU.
They seem to think that we are not capable of continuing to exert our influence in Europe.
They seem to mourn for the age in which Britain gained influence through military strength and Empire.
But the truth is those days are gone.
And what they fail to recognise is the change through which we have continued to be great in the modern world.
In the second half of the 20th Century, we came to realise that it was far better and far more effective to be a global power that achieved its goals through co-operation rather than conquest.
The new Elizabethan Age in which we now live has been one in which Britain has succeeded through persuasion, building relationships, proclaiming British values, promoting free trade, and upholding the rule of law and universal human rights.
This conscious decision to exchange hard power for soft power was an enormously courageous step to take because it meant giving up the means by which we had prospered in the past.
But it paid off.
And we took that step in part because of the bitter experience of war and in part because we could hear the inexorable end of the Age of Empire coming in the growing cry for freedom from our colonies.
And so it was that their submission gave way to their self-determination as the winds of change blew away the old order and a new world emerged.
It was on 14 August 1941 that Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt met in Newfoundland to adopt a joint declaration - subsequently known as the Atlantic Charter - that set out the Allied goals for the post-war world which became the basis for the United Nations.
The two most important of these goals were, first, self-determination so that people could be free to shape their own future and, second, global co-operation to secure better economic and social conditions for all.
And far from being in contradiction, what bound these two goals together was the dawning realisation that for states to truly determine their future in the modern age they would have to co-operate with their neighbours and with the rest of the world.
And how can we best advance the British national interest today and in the future?
By continuing to do exactly that. By continuing to participate in and lead those very organisations that we helped to create which gave and give us influence.
Influence that can be seen today in so many different ways.
From the European Convention on Human Rights which we helped to draft to British Standards which allow the world to have confidence in the quality of goods and services.
From UK leadership on humanitarian aid - the UN Central Emergency Response Fund was a British idea - to the first climate change legislation in the world.
And for us now, of all countries, to walk away from the European Union and in the process to send a message to the rest of humankind that we are turning our face away from those values, away from that cooperation and away from the influence it gives us, would not only be a catastrophic mistake for our country but would be to diminish ourselves.
It would make us a poorer Britain. A lesser Britain. A less influential Britain.
And most damaging of all, it would undermine the life chances of our children and our grandchildren.
Why on earth as parents and grandparents would we want to do that?
The world I was born into in 1953 - the year of the Queen’s coronation - had a population of 2.7 billion people.
Today there are 7.5 billion of us.
By the time my grandchildren reach my age, they will be sharing this small and fragile planet of ours with 10 billion men, women and children.
Will walking away from Europe really give them greater control over the world they will be living in?
Will it make their future better?
Will it help them to manage the changes that they will inevitably see in their lives just as we have seen great changes in ours?
Will it help them to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead in this century?
In our hearts, we know that the answer to all these questions is no.
So we have 10 days left to make sure this does not happen.
We have 10 days left to take our case to all four corners of the country.
We have 10 days left to proclaim the values of cooperation with our neighbours.
We have 10 days left to honour the vision and the courage and the determination of those who brought peace to our continent.
Ours is a vision worth fighting for.
So let's go out there and win this battle for the future of a great Britain.