Michael Burnett is a prospective candidate for the European Parliament in the West Midlands at the 2014 European election.
A few months ago I argued that it was time to take UKIP seriously – and attack their core idea that Britain should leave the EU.
I didn’t think that, after David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech, it would be necessary to spell out the arguments again – this time to fellow Conservatives. David Cameron’s speech and the follow-up strategy (review competences, extensive opt-out of policing and justice measures, cut a deal with Angela Merkel, referendum in the next parliament) should have settled the debate for the future course of our approach to the EU re-negotiation up to the next election. And, as a political strategy, give Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg awkward choices.
We will all have our view on what the re-negotiation priorities are. I set out mine on Conservative Home in December 2012:
Firstly, a redefinition of a qualified majority for decisions on Single Market issues by reclassifying the Eurozone as a single entity and re-weighting the votes in the Council so that others can form a blocking minority. This would be consistent with past practice, as the EU has generally given additional weighting to smaller states.
Secondly, that the revenues of a financial transactions tax should not form part of the EU’s “own resources” but be retained by the Member State in which they arose and that the financial transactions tax would only apply to transactions between countries who have agreed to impose it.
Thirdly, the need for a zero-based review of the EU budget – i.e. a fundamental review of the balance of the EU budget to reflect the importance of promoting innovation, growth and the global economic competitiveness of EU. This should include a review of the added value of Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee. This would address future demands for EU budget increases by requiring that additional functions are financed by corresponding reductions elsewhere in the budget.
Fourthly, a commitment by all EU Member States to increase national defence spending to the average share of GDP of European NATO members.
And it’s also clear that the unmodified continuation of free movement of peoples in the EU has become unsustainable.
An anonymous Greek proverb, sometimes wrongly attributed to the dramatist Euripides, has it that “those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”. What has happened in the past week makes me wonder if our Party has gone mad. Paul Goodman had it absolutely right earlier in the year when he asks if Conservatives MPs really want to win the next election.
It reminds me of Labour’s preference for ideological purity over practical politics.after 1979, when left wing critics of the 1974-79 Labour government propagated the idea that that government had “sold out” Labour principles. In 1983, Labour’s election manifesto was described by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history”, since it called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the then European Economic Community, and the re-nationalisation of recently de-nationalised industries. It led to a crushing election defeat – and a Conservative majority of 144 seats.
So it’s time for a return to reality – the reality that:
1) We didn’t win an overall majority in the 2010 election in spite of Labour’s deep unpopularity (and had not won an overall majority in a UK parliamentary election since 1992).
2) There was no alternative coalition for the Conservatives to one with the Liberal Democrats.
3) There was an urgent need for a politically stable government to act to address Britain’s debt and deficit crisis, on which the markets had suspended judgement until the expected election result. As I heard a colleague say, “if there isn’t a stable government by Tuesday (May 11 2010), there will be a bond market spike on Wednesday.”
4) No parliament can bind its successors.
5) Reforming the EU doesn’t need a deal with the other 27 members – the dynamics of the EU mean that in effect what is needed is a deal with Germany, the Eurozone’s dominant force, with whom we share common interests on competitiveness and concerns about unrestrained free movement of peoples and for whom we are now the most significant trade partner.
6) Appropriate conclusions will be drawn about a Party when many of its MPs plainly don’t trust its leader’s promises.
7) There is no clear evidence for the view that the way to gain unilateral concessions for the UK is by threatening to leave the EU.
8) Calling for an early referendum will mean that there’s no chance of a credible and realistic re-negotiation.
Those in our party who are calling for an early referendum risk undermining the Prime Minister’s clear theme for re-negotiation of “good for Europe/good for Britain”, a positive and forward-looking tone, building alliances across the EU and continuing to spell out a vision of a Europe fit for purpose in the 21st Century and not frozen in the politics of the 1950s and 1960s.
And, most importantly, they risk undermining our strategy for winning the next election as the only potential governing party entering that election united with a promise of an in-out referendum – a promise which should be enough for all strands of Conservative opinion.