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1997 Onwards - Sir John Major’s Speech at the Oxford Union on the UK’s EU Membership

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Oxford Union made on Friday 13 May 2016.


This is my first formal speech in the Referendum campaign, and it is appropriate that it is here - because it is your generation's future that will be enhanced or diminished by whether we "remain" in or "leave" the EU.

I've no particular reason to be a supporter of the EU. It is far from perfect. A quarter of a century ago it bitterly divided my Party, and European disagreements wrecked many of the ambitions I had as Prime Minister. It opened disputes that linger yet. Nor am I an unquestioning European: I did, after all, say "No" to the Euro, and "No" to joining the Schengen Agreement on open borders.

Even so, I passionately believe we must remain in Europe and help shape its future: geography, trade and logic mean our futures are linked whether we wish it or not.

Tonight I want to explain why I believe that is so, and then cast a critical eye over the flawed - and misleading - arguments for Brexit.

What sort of country are we? For hundreds of years we've been a positive force in the world - a nation that looked outwards, and spread our ideas, our principles, our laws, our democracy, across the world.

But that world has changed. Today, we are 65 million people: less than 1% of a world of 7,000 million, forecast to become 9,000 million by the time your own children are at University.

And the global market is inexorably drawing that world together on a scale we could not have imagined even a few years ago. It is counter-intuitive to try to go it alone and, as our friends around the world tell us, a disastrously bad decision to do so.

Within the EU, we are a large and influential nation and - while we remain a part of a Union of 500 million people - we have serious political and diplomatic clout, as well as economic advantages. Some examples make this clear.

In Europe, we were able to impose sanctions on Russia to keep her in check, and deter further misbehaviour in Ukraine. We persuaded the EU to join America and impose sanctions on Iran, to bring about a deal that halts development of a nuclear weapon. We could not do this alone. If we were to leave, the world would consider us diminished. Departure would be a gratuitous act of self-harm.

The economic argument for Europe is overwhelming: it is nearly half our export market, and nearly five times bigger than all the 52 Commonwealth countries added together, or indeed, six times more than the sum total of trade with Brazil, Russia, India and China.

In the EU, we have unimpeded access to the richest trade market in the world - right here on our doorstep. Access to that market of 500 million people encourages a wealth of investment into our country. That's not an abstract statistic - it's people's jobs, taxes, profits and overall quality of life.

Outside Europe, we would still have to comply with EU rules and regulations, unless we surrendered all access to the Single Market - which all reputable authorities, not least the IMF, OECD, NIESR and the Bank of England, regard as economically foolish.

And, once out - or "liberated" in the more emotive language of the "Leave" campaign - we could no longer protect ourselves against the impact of EU laws on the City of London, nor on our industry and service sectors.

Nominally, we would indeed be "free", but - in practice - we would only be "free" to accept whatever the EU determined, with no power to argue against it. Is that "taking back control" - as the "Leave" campaign describes it? No it isn't. And it's not glorious sovereignty either. It is nothing other than reckless, imprudent folly. And the price for that would be paid by every British family.

It is not the only price. The NIESR warns of a collapse in the value of Sterling. The LSE warns of higher prices. The Bank of England fears higher interest rates and mortgages. All this and more - from independent bodies - is ignored and brushed aside by the "Leave" campaign.

Yet many people - not least in my own Party - wish to leave.  

Their motives are many and variable: pride in our country, concern over sovereignty and immigration, and fear that we have no influence in Europe and are heading towards a federal structure.

We must address these instincts, these emotions, and debunk myths that are wrong, but sunk in our national consciousness. If we fail to do so, we may end up leaving Europe because absurd falsehoods are widely believed to be true.

One absurdity is that, subsumed in Europe, we would lose our traditions, our heritage, our individuality. We won't: after sixty years of Europe are the French less French or the Germans less German? Of course not: and nor will we be less British.

In the search for voter support the "Leave" campaign repeatedly overstate their case: if they were to win, they risk a backlash from those who reasonably might say they were misled.

There is no shortage of such exaggerations. One clear example is the cost of Europe. Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan-Smith and Boris Johnson all put it at £20 billion a year; Michael Gove is more modest at £18 billion (£350 million a week), all of which, they tell us - if only we could be free of Europe - would be spent on the Health Service and our hospitals.

If only … if only…. but the truth is their figures are wrong by a factor of over three! During the last five years the average gross payment was £12.7 billion of which £5.6 billion was paid back to us. Last year, our gross payment was just over £11 billion, of which over £5 billion was paid back to our farmers, businesses, science, research and regional aid. This is not my calculation - it is the calculation of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

So, to put £20 billion more into hospitals the "Leave" campaign would have to claw back all the money paid to some of our fellow countrymen and, on top of that, tax us all by an additional £10 billion. Those who make such false claims - and knowingly do so - need to apologise that they've got their figures badly wrong - and stop peddling a demonstrable untruth - as they have been repeatedly asked to do by the Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority.

The "Leave" campaign fret that we have surrendered our "sovereignty" to Europe. That is a very rum claim: and - if it were true - how could we offer our nation a Referendum? It is certainly true that we have shared sovereignty: we share ours and, in return, we gain a share of the sovereignty of 27 other nations.

But this is our choice - because it is in our own national interest. And, if it ever ceased to be, our Government can always commence withdrawal with Parliament support. So let me make the position on sovereignty absolutely clear: we share it within the EU only for as long as our British Parliament wishes us to do so.

And even that sharing is partial.

What say does the EU have over our economic policy? None.

Our education system? None.

Our NHS? None.

Our welfare system? None.

Our Armed Forces? None.

Our police? None

I could go on: 98% of government spending is entirely in the control of the British Parliament.

Like much we hear from the "Leave" campaign, the sovereignty argument is emotive but specious. In a global economy, no country truly has sovereignty - not even our mighty friend the US. And in our most crucial area - security - we have happily shared sovereignty within NATO for over 60 years.

Of course, we don't always get our own way. Who does in any relationship of two - let alone one that numbers 27 other Member States? But we should not forget that - in well over 90% of the votes cast in Brussels - the UK wins. The caricature that we are repeatedly voted down in Europe is ill-informed nonsense.

Another cherished "Leave" mantra is that we will all be "dragged" into a "federal" Europe. It is their favourite horror story. But, yet again, it is fantasy.

Were we dragged into the Euro? No

Were we dragged into Schengen and open borders? No

Are we now exempt from "ever-closer union"? Yes, we are.

And if any new Treaty seeks more power, that Treaty would have to be put to the British nation in a Referendum and if - and only if - it were approved by us would it become law.

A final point on sovereignty: we have sovereignty in its purest and most potent form: we - the UK - can leave the EU at any time; nothing legally binds us to the EU forever. That is the fact and we should disregard the fiction.

As the "Leave" arguments implode one by one, some of the Brexit leaders morph into UKIP, and turn to their default position: immigration. This is their trump card. I urge them to take care: this is dangerous territory that - if handled carelessly - can open up long-term divisions in our society.

I grew up in Brixton in the 1950s - a time of massive West Indian immigration. As a boy, I played in local parks with the children of migrants.  Some of these newcomers rented rooms in the same house as my family.

So, I can tell you, as a matter of fact, not fantasy, that those I knew then - and later - didn't come here for our benefits: they came half-way across the world to give themselves and their families a better life.

But, at the time, fears were fanned by careless statements from political figures. That was a mistake then, and would be a mistake now.

Do not misunderstand me. Of course, it is legitimate to raise the issue of the sheer number of those wishing to enter our country. I wholly accept that. Nor do I wish to silence debate. We mustn't overlook genuine concerns: but these should be expressed with care, honesty and balance. Not in a manner that can raise fears or fuel prejudice. The "Leave" campaign are crossing that boundary, and I caution them not to do so.

They attribute motives to new arrivals that are speculative and, frankly, offensive. They highlight - with grotesque exaggeration - the risk of mass migration from Turkey - which is unlikely to be joining the EU any time soon and indeed may never do so. And - even if she did - the terms of her accession would need to be agreed by every Member State.

So, when the "Leave" campaign warn of "opening our borders to 88 million" (meaning Turkey and the Western Balkans) they cross the boundaries of responsible comment. It is unlikely in the extreme that - I quote - "another 88 million people will soon be eligible for NHS care and school places for their children".

I assume this distortion of reality was intended to lead the British people into believing that almost the entire population of possible new entrants will wish to relocate to the UK. If so, this is pure demagoguery. I hope that - when the heat of the Referendum is behind us - the proponents of such mischief making will be embarrassed and ashamed at how they have mis-used this issue.

They advance a second migration red herring - that the recent modest rise in our National Living Wage will be "irresistible" to would-be migrants.

This is very dubious. First of all, 40% of all migrants are under 25 and therefore ineligible.

Second, are people really motivated to cross an entire Continent to receive a few pence a week extra? I very much doubt it.

But even if they were - why would they choose the UK, when the minimum wage is higher, for example, in France; and wage levels higher in other countries that have no statutory minimum.

And what of the "numbers" argument?

There are various categories of immigrants. Commonwealth immigration is entirely unaffected by our membership of the EU.   

 Would-be migrants from around the world need skilled worker visas to enter: and these are under our control.

Refugees are dealt with on a case by case basis. Many of those applying for citizenship have lost everything, and we have always been a compassionate nation.  But these decisions are under our control.

But there are clearly undesirables, who we can - and already do - exclude. This includes anyone where there is concern over national security, criminal activity or adverse immigration history. This, too, is already under our control.

But yes, if we were to leave Europe, we could exclude more EU citizens - such as the 54,000 EU migrants now working as Doctors, or Nurses or Ancilliaries in our Health Service, or the nearly 80,000 working in Social Care. We could exclude skilled workers like builders and plumbers - or unskilled labour that takes jobs that are unappealing to the British. In short, the people we could most easily keep out are the very people we most need.

A balanced approach would acknowledge the contribution of migrants to our national wellbeing. Without their contribution, the Health Service would not be able to cope - nor would our public transport system; and our hotels, restaurants and shops would be without staff to serve their customers. We would have a shortage of many skills for industry. This is the reality of what lies beneath the emotive language of those who seek to raise the drawbridge on our country.  

This problem of numbers will not be forever. The growth of the Eurozone economy - now clearly underway - should cut demand to come here, as jobs grow elsewhere across Europe. And, in any event, a short term migrancy flow should not be the issue that drives the UK out of an economic union that already benefits our country immensely - and will continue to do so in the future.

I asked earlier: what sort of country are we? And what sort of people are we?

Under our undemonstrative exterior we are an essentially kind and benevolent nation, and more inclined to emotion than the age old caricature of stiff upper lip.

Show us charitable need and we dig deep.

Show us children in need, and we pay up happily.

Show us people starving in Africa, and we text our contributions by the million.

Show us a far away nation suffering from natural disaster, and we rush to help.

We do so because our emotions are touched. But we should not let those emotions be stirred by false fear: nor allow false fear to impair our judgement on the future of our country.

 Over the next few weeks we - the British people - will decide the future direction of our country.

This is not a General Election which rolls around every five years: we can't "suck it and see". There will not be another Referendum on Europe. This is it.

So - whatever your view - register and vote. Because the decision you take on the 23rd of June will shape our country, our people, and our livelihoods for generations to come.