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Hamilton Dan 2013Daniel Hamilton is a Partner at Bell Pottinger LLP.  He
writes in a personal capacity. 

Over
the past two decades, it has become de rigueur for British Prime Ministers to
deliver speeches about the importance of European reform. Such speeches
have been packed with buzzwords such as “flexibility”, “accountability” and
“subsidiary”, yet utterly devoid of specific policies or proposals.

John
Major's government made much of their defence of the British national interest
in securing an opt-out from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, yet
ultimately threw Britain's weight behind the creation of the Euro and a pathway
to the introduction of the very cross-border justice policies which the Home Secretary is now
seeking Britain’s withdrawal from.

Many
market-oriented Eurosceptics were delighted by Tony Blair’s speech to the
European Parliament in 2005 when he called for an EU designed to “enhance our
ability to compete, to help our people cope with globalisation, to let them
embrace its opportunities and avoid its dangers”. Of course, as was so
often with Tony Blair, his rhetoric did not match the reality of his deeds.

Finally,
while he should be commended for resisting Mandelsonian demands for Britain to
join the Euro, it is Gordon Brown’s signature that brought the wretched Lisbon
Treaty into force – and with it the surrender of the British veto in more than
forty policy areas.

Talk,
however, is cheap.  Actions are what matter.

The
crucial difference between the Prime Minister’s speech in January and the
mealy-mouthed declarations of his predecessors was that it offered not simply a
restatement of the vague aspiration of “renegotiation” but an explicit warning
to the rest of Europe that Britain was no longer willing to accept European
Union membership at any cost.  Finally, European leaders have been forced
to listen to British leaders as opposed to ignoring them.

For
the first time, a British Conservative Prime Minister outlined in realistic
terms the possibility of Britain leaving the EU if renegotiation and reforms
were not secured.  The Prime Minister has put EU governments on notice
that Britain is no longer willing to accept a settlement with the European
Union.

It’s
now six months since the Prime Minister’s “big speech” and, while not all Eurosceptics
will be satisfied with the progress that has been made, evidence already exists
that it has made a demonstrable and beneficial difference to the UK’s
bargaining position in Europe.  This is particularly noticeable in
relation to budget negotiations.

Three
weeks after the "big speech", an agreement was reached at the
European Council to cut the European Union's operational budget for the period
from 2014 to 2020 – the first time in EU history that a real terms budget cut
had been secured.  While the French Government and European Parliament had
sought increases to the budget, it was noticeable that Angela Merkel rowed in
behind the British position, partly in an attempt to demonstrate concessions to
the UK.

From
next year, spending will be cut from €144.5 billion to €135.9 billion next
year, a cut of 5.8 per cent.  For the full seven year period, savings will amount
to roughly €60 billion.  This amounts to a saving for British taxpayers of
roughly £500 a year. This
is an unquestionably solid start, even with vast amounts of waste remaining –
particularly in relation to the bloated Common Agricultural Policy. 
Trimming this fat must be the Conservative Government’s top priority in the
coming years.

When
it comes to the negotiation of the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment
Partnership (read: Free Trade Agreement), French demands for talks on the
proposal to be suspended in light of Edward Snowden’s PRISM allegations has met
with deaf ears. The
previous, knee-jerk Franco-German axis has, at least temporarily, given way to
a more pragmatic, trade and deregulation-focused approach led by London.

The
process of securing desperately-needed reforms to the European Union is only
just beginning.  It still remains far from clear that it is in Britain’s
interests to remain a member of the organisation. What
is clear, however, is that David Cameron’s referendum pledge has put Britain on
the front foot – and sent a warning to Europe that the UK is no longer willing
to be steamrollered, side-lined and sneered at.

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