John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.
As we wait to hear more about the Prime Minister’s renegotiation in the lead-up to the In/Out referendum on our EU membership, it is worth bearing in mind that there are essentially two closely-linked issues at stake: economics and sovereignty. It is in these fields that the Prime Minister must win substantial concessions during his negotiations with our EU partners – all else pales into insignificance by comparison.
On the economic front, the British economy continues to be the fastest-growing major economy in the developed world, and job creation in recent years has been more than merely impressive – one reason why Britain is a popular destination for jobseekers across the world. The pro-business policies in the latest Budget suggest that the British economy is set on a fair course.
By contrast, the EU remains mired in the global economic slow-lane, with sluggish growth and savage unemployment, particularly amongst younger people. The Eurozone crisis is still a long way off a resolution, as Greece’s continued racking on the altar of the single currency so acutely demonstrates. In many ways, our EU membership is a millstone to our economic performance, rather than the springboard it is supposed to be. Europe is full of enterprising companies and peoples – unfortunately, the EU is presently acting as a deadweight.
So far, Brussels’ ‘solutions’ to the EU’s economic woes have been to implement ‘more Europe’ – greater integration and increased regulation, particularly in the area of financial services. In his negotiations, it is imperative the Prime Minister obtains concrete opt-outs from any measures which will hobble the City and reduce our competitive advantage in financial services.
Moreover, there should be greater scope for Britain to improve trade with the faster-growing economies outside the EU: it is a nonsense we can not press on with a trade deal with India, which would be hugely beneficial to both countries, until such time as the EU Commission decides to draw one up for the EU as a whole.
As regards sovereignty, quite apart from the perceived ‘democratic deficit’ at the heart of the EU – who voted for President Juncker? – many people are unhappy with the current level of interference of EU and EU-inspired legislation has on daily life in Britain. For example, small businesses, of which there are many in my constituency, justifiably complain at the heavy burden of EU export regulations they are forced to apply to their goods and services, whether or not they export outside the UK.
This is why a growing number of backbench Conservative MPs believe that the ‘litmus test’ of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation should be ultimately whether national parliaments – either individually or acting in concert – gain the ability to strike down any unwanted EU legislation, directives or taxes. Regaining such sovereignty would ensure we regained control of large swathes of our daily lives, including control of our borders, laws and regulations. Anything short of this is of secondary importance.
Furthermore, such a policy would be in the best long-term interests of the EU. It would enable national parliaments to shape EU policy for their benefit – and, as the Prime Minister espoused in his Bloomberg speech, would help create a more flexible and nimble European Union, able to respond to differing circumstances and priorities, rather than a rigid and homogeneous bloc.
The ‘price’ of this reform may be a slightly more uneven EU but arguably, with some countries inside the Eurozone and others outside it, this is already a reality. As at least one of our EU partners might put it, Vive la Différence!