Ahmed J Versi, Editor of The Muslim News, meets Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss forthcoming EU referendum, security, human rights, trade
Why should one vote for staying in the EU considering you were not able to get reforms you wanted?
My aim in the renegotiation was clear: to keep us in all the things that work for us, and get us out of the things that don’t. That’s exactly what I did. We’ve said yes to full access to the Single Market of 500 million people; yes to working with our neighbours on the things that keep us safe. But we’ve said no – a permanent no – to the single currency, the border-free Schengen Zone, a European Army, and ‘ever-closer union’.
So Britain has a special status in Europe. It means we’re stronger, safer and better off than we would be out on our own. As the Treasury estimates, each household would be the equivalent of £4,300 per year worse off if we left. Why? Because leaving would put jobs at risk and push prices up, giving us a recession in the short term and make us permanently poorer in the long term. That’s why I believe people should vote for our security – and vote to remain.
Do you want the European Convention on Human Rights to be reformed? If yes, what aspects of the ECHR do you want to change? Or do you want to withdraw from ECHR as Home Secretary Theresa May said?
First, I should point out that membership of the ECHR is entirely separate to our EU membership. But yes, I absolutely want to reform our human rights laws. Our plans don’t involve leaving the European Convention, but I rule out absolutely nothing in delivering the changes we need.
I am proud of our tradition of human rights. We are, after all, the country that gave the world Magna Carta, enshrining liberty under the rule of law. But there is a problem with the Human Rights Act passed by the Labour government. It’s opened the system to abuse and damaged the credibility of human rights. It’s stopped us being able to deport dangerous people from our country.
So this government was elected with a mandate to reform the UK human rights framework. We’ll be proposing a new British Bill of Rights to protect fundamental rights, but also prevent their abuse, and we’ll be consulting on proposals before legislation is introduced.
Comments by US President Barack Obama on the EU referendum that Britons should vote to remain in the EU undermine Brexit case. Do you think he should have interfered in internal affairs of the UK?
President Obama was asked a question and he answered it honestly. He was completely entitled to offer his opinion, but very clear this is a matter for the British people. He was also setting the record straight on some of the speculation on what America would or wouldn’t do in the event of Britain leaving the EU. Frankly, I’m not surprised that he and others are making their voices heard.
From Australia to France, Indonesia to Japan – and across the Commonwealth – world leaders are urging us to remain in Europe. Because it’s in their interests to have a strong, prosperous Britain. And they know that EU membership reinforces that.
When taking a decision of great importance in life, it is usual to consult your friends. Our friends in the world – our closest allies – are very clear: they hope we will stay in the EU.
What do you say to the argument that the UK would gain the freedom to negotiate bilateral trade agreements with non-EU states?
That argument is wrong. The EU has, or is negotiating, trade deals with over 80 per cent of the Commonwealth. Britain is helping to drive those deals. If we left the EU, we would have to renegotiate each one of them – and all the other EU trade deals we benefit from.
The fact is that the best trade deals today are done between large blocs. That’s why leaders from President Obama to Prime Minister Abe of Japan have said that their priority is to negotiate trade deals with Europe, rather than individual countries. As a great, trading nation, we don’t want to be at the back of the queue on the deals – we want to be leading from the front. Inside the EU, we do just that. But, crucially, the Leave campaign want Britain to leave the EU’s Single Market of 500 million people – our home market and the biggest in the world, where we have a say over the rules. 44 per cent of our exports go to the single market. Leaving it would damage our economy, jobs and growth.
Even though we are not part of the Schengen Agreement, we have had a huge increase in immigration from the EU. Surely we will be able to control immigration if we were not part of the EU?
If you want full access to the free trade Single Market – like we have today – no country has managed to get that access without accepting the free movement of people, and paying in to the EU. But let’s be clear – this is about letting people come and work in the UK. If people cannot support themselves, or are a risk to our country, we can exclude them.
The Leave campaign are trying to tell people that leaving the EU would somehow allow for a massive increase in immigration from the Indian sub-continent. But the idea they would lobby for a big increase in non-EU migration if we were to leave the EU is ridiculous. It simply won’t happen. They are basing their whole campaign on attacking migration – not on replacing European migration with migrants from South Asia. Does anyone believe the likes of Nigel Farage really want that?
We do need to bring down the overall level of migration to more sustainable levels, and through the new settlement I negotiated, EU migrants will now have to wait four years before they can have full access to our benefits. It means no more ‘something for nothing’, and it will substantially reduce the incentives for lower-paid, lower-skilled Europeans to come to the UK. I think that’s important. And I believe it will have a real impact on migration numbers – all without seriously damaging our economy and making our country permanently poorer, which the Leave campaign’s plan to pull us out of the Single Market would do.
Leaving the EU would improve Britain’s security, former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, has said. He argued that Britain’s borders could be strengthened in the event of a Brexit and extremists could be more easily deported. You have said staying in the EU would make us more secure. Who is right?
There is no doubt staying in the EU means we are safer. Over the last few years – especially since Sir Richard left office over a decade ago – it has become far more important to Britain’s security. Jonathan Evans and John Sawers, the two most recent former heads of MI5 and MI6 respectively, have made this point very powerfully. They are the experts who we charge with keeping us safe, and they are in no doubt about the EU’s contribution to British security.
We have full border controls for EU nationals, so it is nonsense to claim that EU membership means terrorists can wander into the UK, or that we need to strengthen our border controls to prevent terrorism.
But border controls are not enough by themselves. It is essential to have information and intelligence on who is crossing those borders in order to know who to stop. This makes the closest cooperation between European countries vital. Staying in the EU means we can quickly receive information and intelligence, including at the border, about suspected terrorists from other EU countries. This is often how we know who to deny entry to. But if we left, access to this information would be diminished – we may no longer receive it automatically. We would have to try to figure a way back in to these arrangements. That’s a serious risk to our national security that we must not take, especially in these very dangerous times.
EU regulations are disadvantaging the City of London, for example, EU financial transaction tax, which will soon be introduced. Being outside the EU would ensure the City of London is not harmed. Do you not agree with this?
Services form 80 per cent of the British economy – and the financial sector is a massive part of that. This is, in large part, down to our membership of the EU. Through the Single Market, our financial services can do business in any EU country without having to jump through hoops. We’ve actually had banks saying they would have to relocate to Frankfurt or Paris if Britain left the EU. We will not introduce a Financial Transaction Tax.
In terms of regulation, our goods and services are the second-least regulated after the Netherlands, according to the OECD. In my new settlement, I secured commitments to reduce the EU’s regulatory burden on business even further. For our financial services to trade with the world – which is so important for them – they have to adhere to regulations. Inside Europe, we get to shape those regulations. Outside, we have no say.
Is the government still supportive of Turkey’s accession to the EU as a full member unlike France and Germany who are against full membership of Turkey?
Any decision to enlarge the EU requires the unanimous agreement of all member states and their national parliaments. We all have a veto. France have already said they’d have a referendum before Turkey could ever join – and right now, 75 per cent of French people are against that happening. Turkey has wanted to join the EU for decades. It is clearly not going to happen any time soon.
In that context, I do find it concerning the way that the Leave campaign are talking about Turkish people in this referendum. Some of the material they are putting out, painting Turkish people as criminals or terrorists, is frankly appalling. Many British Muslims will be offended by the way they are trying to frighten people. I think it’s a sign of desperation.
(@C The Muslim News)