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Over two-thirds vote Remain in Bar Council EU debate

Bar Council

6 min read Partner content

An EU Referendum debate hosted by the Bar Council on Monday, including guest speakers Lord Michael Howard and Dominic Grieve MP, saw 70% of attendees voting for Remain.

Esteemed British lawyers and politicians hash out their considered legal perspectives in a heated debate on the UK’s membership to the European Union.

Former Tory leader, Lord Michael Howard, argued in favour of vote Leave stating that the UK is perfectly capable of cooperation without giving up its democracy

“Of the many gifts that our country has given the world, by the far the greatest is the gift of self-governing democracy,” said Lord Howard, yet we in the UK have given up this right, to an “extraneous” governing body which severs the ties between voters and governance.

“We can only recover our birth right and our heritage by voting to leave on June 23,” he deduced.

Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, and Attorney General from 2010 to 2014, disagreed saying the UK’s cooperation with its neighbours through the institutions of the EU was “absolutely normal” and “in keeping with our national tradition.”

Since 1834, the UK has signed more than 13,200 treaties, he explained, even “at the height of our imperial powers,” each one offered up a portion of our sovereignty, because “it was in our national interest to do so.”

The treaties of the EU, he argued, were no different.

“Its institutions exist to give effect to a series of treaties by which its 28 member states agree to create a single market in goods and services, and cooperate in other fields such as environmental protection, health and safety, social policy, and security.”

“I worry too about the ‘me, me, me’ of this debate,” Grieve added. “Cooperation is at the heart of our success as a nation. We should be building on it, not throwing away all that we have so successfully achieved.”

Joanna Cherry QC and Scottish National Party MP for Edinburgh South West, said that the criticisms of the EU’s democratic deficit were overblown:

“We repeatedly hear that the EU is not democratic. It’s an opprobrium heaped upon the European Commission because it is not elected,” said Cherry. “But ladies and gentlemen, the Commission is the civil service of EU.”

Its members are appointed by the member states to “propose laws” only, she explained, while the Council of Ministers is made up of ministers from the democratically elected member states of the EU, who make laws in conjunction with the directly elected European Parliament.

“It’s not perfect,” she added. “But we have imperfections in our democracy: we don’t have proportional representation, so the current government was elected with 37% of the vote, and 24% of the electorate, while the House of Lords has 800 peers, unelected and unaccountable to the public.”

Michael Howe QC, chairman of Lawyers for Britain and a barrister specialising in EU law, felt that the UK’s constitutional arrangements were besides the premise of the debate, as they are determined by the British public.

In joining the EU however, the UK had given up this right to a system of law making that is “labyrinthine and accountable” and “completely opaque.”

A price, he went on, that the British people have never agreed to pay.

Despite the fact that Britain can veto new treaties, Howe explained that once one government has agreed to an EU treaty, a future government is unable to change to it, “however the British public vote in subsequent elections.”

“We are tied and shackled to an ever-growing mass of EU laws and rules which are in practice unreformable,” said Howe.

Grieve argued that on balance these treaties had lead to “a massive growth in prosperity,” and that leaving the EU would put too much of our trade at risk, for rewards that remained unclear.

Since joining in 1973 - when the UK was once dubbed ‘the sick man of Europe’ - the European treaties have facilitated our “progressive national economic revival,” he said, “and indeed, a lot is due to trade.”

He explained that 45% of our exports go to the member states, and we receive £44bn of inward investment through EU membership, as foreign companies seek access to the single market of 500 million consumers.

He also warned that the world was becoming an “increasingly protectionist place” and the pull of its single market means the EU is more effective at securing open trade with third parties.

Contrary to Grieve, Howe argued that the EU has been “absolutely terrible” at broaching trade agreements with third countries, as opposition from one quarter or another routinely prevents them from being ratified.

He gave the example of the trade deal with Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, which failed due to opposition from farmers in several member states; the CETA deal with Canada, which could yet fail due to potential opposition from Romania; and TTIP, which is unlikely to succeed as France demands protection for its film industry.

In any case, Howe went on, “the EU goes far beyond that,” and “intrudes into areas of policy far beyond trade.”

“The Single European Act makes clear: the objective of all the community treaties is to make concrete progress towards EU unity,” he said. “Free movement and competition, far from being ends in themselves, are only a means for obtaining those objectives.”

“The supposed trade and economic benefits have got less over time, while the number of EU laws has gone up and up.”

Lord Howard gave two clear examples of EU law making that have intruding on UK sovereignty, for goals above and beyond the facilitation of trade.

“First: we have a government twice elected on the promise of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands,” he said, “Yet it’s incapable of fulfilling that promise, because it has no control over immigration from the EU.”

He also cited the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2104, that was ‘struck down’ by the European court, and is currently before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) who will decide “whether that Act of Parliament passed by both our houses after long debate is consistent with the European Convention of Human Rights,” said Lord Howard. “An Act which incidentally was described by the Home Secretary as crucial to tackling crime and terrorism and protecting children.”

Cherry argued that the ECJ’s role in these areas was to “guarantee and enhance many of the social and economic rights that we enjoy today,” precisely because certain rights should not be subject to change.

The EU’s greatest achievements, she said, have been in gender equality and employment rights, such as the Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value directive, which the Commission had to take a Conservative government to court over before it was implemented.

“In the bad old days, English judges ruled that dismissing a woman because of pregnancy was not sexual discrimination because employers would dismiss a sick man in similar circumstances. It was the ECJ that put an end to that nonsense.”

“You might think it’s unlikely that we would lose these rights in case of Brexit,” she said, but question the motives of those who want to cut rights “in the interests of cutting red tape.”

After the debate was concluded, the 233 members of the audience voted for which side they felt had made the most compelling case.

73 voted to Leave; while 160 voted to Remain.


The Bar Council has published a three-part report identifies a range of laws that will be affected by either outcome of the EU Referendum on 23 June. Read more about the findings here

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