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George
Freeman MP is the newly elected Member of Parliament for Mid Norfolk, a member
of the Fresh Start Group and Co-Founder of the 2020Conservatives.  Follow George on Twitter.

Last Friday’s
historic Commons vote in which the Conservative Party in Parliament voted in
favour of an EU Referendum Bill edges us closer to putting into law the Prime
Minister’s groundbreaking commitment to the strategy of "Renegotiation +
Referendum".  The signal to Europe
is clear: the UK is getting serious about using the threat of ‘Brexit’ to
negotiate an alternative and radically reformed Europe, which we will then let
the British people decide on in an In-Out Referendum.

The
emptiness of the Labour benches told their own story: the Conservatives are the
only party committed to engaging seriously in leading the reform of Europe, and
letting the people decide. Ed
Milliband’s weakness on this is palpable. Whilst David Cameron leads, Red Ed is
busy shoring up the support of his trade union backers.

Domestically,
Friday’s vote tees up another key reason to vote Conservative at the next
Election: give us the mandate to see through the renegotiation and deliver that
Referendum. But for that to be credible, and to avoid the predictable charge
from UKIP next spring that we have simply 'kicked the Referendum into the long
grass', we need to explain why we need the next four years to negotiate the New
Europe we want to see and have a realistic and substantial alternative to
present to the British public in 2017.

To do that, and to shoot UKIP’s fox, we
need to begin, now, actively building a pan-European alliance for reform and
the first stages of renegotiation. We stand very little chance of negotiating
if it us against the rest.  We need an
alliance of nations signed up to a common platform of reform.  If the Coalition Agreement prevents the Prime
Minister and Foreign Secretary from actively leading renegotiation today, why
don't we appoint a senior Conservative Prime Ministerial Envoy, with the
respect of business and the City, to reach out to the Chancellories of Europe
and convene the London Convention on Reform so we can show the British people
it is us who are serious about renegotiation?

Globalisation
and the perfect storm of banking, debt and Eurozone crises are fundamentally
changing the dynamics of the EU.  We are
at a turning point. The European project’s seemingly unstoppable momentum of
ever-closer political and economic union towards a single currency and
ultimately a political state – which has fuelled the disillusionment of a
British electorate which voted only for a Common Market – has to change.


The
scale of the crisis facing the UK as an ageing Western democracy – a structural
crisis in the public finances driven by a demographic time bomb, rising
healthcare and state pension costs,  and
a top heavy and uncompetitive public sector – applies equally across most of
Western Europe.  

The
solution – a more competitive and entrepreneurial economy, and a rebalance of
trade with the fastest growing ‘BRIC+11’ – applies to Europe every bit as to
us.  To do it we need a European
Commission much less inward-looking in pursuit of ever deeper integration and
much more outward-looking in pursuit of global trade deals.

This
is the fundamental reality which the Prime Minister’s ground-breaking Bloomberg speech
recognised and rightly insisted creates a huge opportunity for Europe, and
Britain. We cannot afford to be sucked unwillingly into an ever less competitive
political union.  We are committed to the
reform process and to finding a model which properly respects and accommodates
the needs both of the Eurozone nations to federate, and the needs of those of
us outside it – but within Europe – to trade within the EU without having to
give up our sovereignty. 

This
is a historic moment and opportunity which the Prime Minister has rightly
seized with his speech which has electrified the Chancellories of Europe. It is
an opportunity we need to grasp by showing – now – that we are pro-actively and
positively leading the European reform debate and building the alliances around
a shared shopping list of reforms which a bloc of nations could agree on and
negotiate. Without progress on that, we risk allowing our opponents to
mis-represent the Bloomberg speech as a
tactical ‘kick into the long grass’ to buy some time, and allow UKIP to make
hay at next spring’s Euro elections and ratchet up the pressure for an
immediate In-Out Referendum, before we have explored every avenue for
renegotiation.

The
risks of a rushed referendum, or a rush for the exit, before we have had time
to explore and set out a basis for the New Deal in which we are 'in Europe but not
run by it' (ie: inside a trading union but outside a political union), is that
we undermine business confidence at this crucial time in the recovery cycle,
and risk an electorate deciding more in fear than optimism that we are better
off with the devil we know. 

The
crisis in the Eurozone, and the accelerating recovery of the UK economy,
creates a historic opportunity.  Never
has there been such a good case for fundamental reform. This is make or break
for the Euro, with two potential outcomes. 
A break-up of the Eurozone under the intolerable political pressure
created by the transfer of sovereignty and banking and currency risk from the
weaker economies to the stronger.  Or
ever-closer union of the Eurozone nations as they consolidate the political
sovereignty necessary to shore up the currency. 
It looks increasingly like the latter.

This
creates a new dynamic, and a significant step towards what has seemed
increasingly likely since the UK rightly opted out of the Euro and the Social
Chapter: a two-tier Europe with a core group of nations pursuing the ever-closer political union inevitable to support a single currency, and an outer
ring of nations which, whether because of their economic conditions or
political preference, want to be inside an EU Free Trade Area, but not part of
the Euro currency. 

The
emergence of a two-tier Europe could be an enormous opportunity for the UK: to
position ourselves as the natural leaders of the non-Eurozone ‘outer tier’ of
nations, in an EU Free Trade Area,
leading the reform of Europe into a more competitive economic region better
equipped to succeed in the Global Race.

So
let’s seize the opportunity of the Prime Minister’s speech and show that we are
committed to leading the reform agenda; why we need the years between now and
2017 to build the alliance for reform; start to define the Europe we could
be happy in; secure the mandate at the Election, and then try and negotiate
it.   Of course the reality of the
‘Acquis communitaire’ process by which the EU has constructed a political union
through consequential treaties means we have no choice but to fundamentally
renegotiate the basis of our EU membership, and Lord Lawson may be right that
we will fail. But we should try. So that
when we put the In or Out question to the people they will be clear what the
options are.

Under
William Haque the FCO has already embarked on the Review of Competencies as the
basis for the UK renegotiation. Just as important is the work of building alliances of reformers across Europe to demonstrate we have a real opportunity
to secure a new deal. So let’s follow up the Bloomberg speech with a diplomatic
initiative to build a new alliance for reform.  

We
need a London Convention for European Reform this autumn – a cross between
Davos and the Hay Festival – in which pro-reform politicians, constitutional
lawyers, City financiers and business leaders, from across the spectrum in
Europe, inside and outside the Eurozone, start the process of defining the
Europe we all want to see, and the alliance to deliver it. With Andrea Leadsom
and colleagues in the Fresh Start group, I am working on a Fresh Start
Conference this autumn to do just this.  

But
we shouldn’t rely just on backbench campaign groups.  Party leaders across Europe need to see the
UK set a strong lead at Governmental and Party level.  A senior Conservative Prime Ministerial Envoy
to prepare the ground would send a strong signal and allow us to start to make
real progress today. We need to be able to demonstrate to the British people,
before the Referendum, in next year’s Euro elections and in 2015, that we have
left no diplomatic stone unturned in our search for a new deal. 

With
optimism, conviction, a fast recovering economy and the Eurozone in crisis, we
might be surprised what we can achieve. 

Only
by London taking the lead on what we want a reformed Europe to look like will
we flush out support from other countries who want the same but won't say so.
The referendum presents us with a huge political opportunity to cement our
position as the only party who will give people a say. David Cameron has
created a phenomenal political opportunity for our country and our Party. Let's
seize it. 

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