Tim Loughton is a former Education Minister, MP for Worthing East and Shoreham, and Co-Chairman of the Fresh Start project.
This May, the Eurovision Song Contest celebrates its Diamond Jubilee. Everyone’s favourite annual Saturday night cheese is older than the Treaty of Rome, though not quite as long-reigning as the Queen. Its pivotal role in the foundation of the then European Economic Community 19 months later in January 1958 is underrated at our peril.
The United Kingdom came appropriately late to the Eurovision party – debuting in 1957, missing in1958 but participating every year since. Up until 1997, when we last triumphed, two days after Tony Blair first swept to power, we had won outright or been runner-up no fewer than 18 times. Since then, we have only made it into the top ten a measly three times, even with the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber cranking up our effort in 2009.
Some of the UK song entries over that period read like the subtext of an EU communique after a troublesome British leader has rocked the boat as usual: I Belong in 1965 (not too long after General de Gaulle had resolutely pronounced we most certainly don’t), I’m Never Giving Up in 1983, One Step Out of Time in 1992 (just before Maastricht), Cry Baby in 2003 and Flying the Flag for You in 2007. The unforgettable 1981 Bucks Fizz winning entry Making Your Mind Up now looks more prescient than ever in referendum year.
Clearly, the message is that Eurovision has increasingly been falling out of love with Britain whilst, meanwhile, Britain has increasingly been falling out of love with Europe. Last year’s desperate attempt to rekindle the flame with Still in Love with You by Electro Velvet scored our second lowest points haul ever. Only five from Ireland, Malta and San Marino showed any love for us at all.
So when David Cameron goes to the European Council in Brussels this week it could be the mood music that is the undoing of him. There is a fatal flaw in the way the UK’s renegotiation is being played out. It is not about the UK’s relationship with the EU. It is fundamentally about the sustainability and survivability of the EU as we know it – with or without us.
As co-chairman of the Fresh Start Project, the EU reformist group of Conservative MPs set up in 2012 well before the current Judean People’s Liberation Front proliferation, I have been visiting many European capitals with Parliamentary colleagues. Meeting Parliamentarians and ministers, you are quickly reminded that, for each of the 28 different member nations, there are almost as many different intrinsic reasons for signing away sovereignty to the world’s largest trading block. For some, it is just that. For others, it is the fear of what lies beyond an 833 mile border with Russia and, for others still, the attractions of getting your neighbours to help sustain an unsustainable agricultural system. To expect all 28 nations to be singing from the same Euro song book has never been the case, and never will be.
Then when you start talking in terms of what Britain needs this from negotiation, or how UK reform proposals must include their contents, the eyes of our EU allies soon glaze over. When you frame the discussions in terms of how the EU is not working for all of us, and how the world is leaving the EU behind, then my experience has been you achieve an altogether more engaged response. The Czechs will open up with migration worries; the Dutch will endorse the need for much more competition-minded regulation. So rather than banging the Little Englander drum to appease the unappeasable at home, the Prime Minister needs to adopt relentlessly the mood music of the threat to the viability of the EU as a whole if the reforms being spearheaded by the UK are not enthusiastically embraced.
Take the Polish example – apparently the country most entrenched against reforms to welfare benefits enjoyed under the core free movement of labour principles. There are roughly 20 million people of Polish ancestry living outside Poland, making the Polish diaspora one of the largest in the world. Just over 38 million are left at home – and with a declining birth rate worryingly well below the birth rate of the many Poles who have set up home in the UK.
Poland has one of the best education systems in the EU yet, in effect, they are educating and training skilled people who then move abroad to the benefit of other economies. It may help our turnip-growing industry to have have Polish PhDs intelligently pulling up turnips in Norfolk, but how does that benefit Poland? Why wouldn’t any sensible Polish politician want to do something to put a brake on free movement, which is haemorraging skills away from helping to build their own economic wealth? Likewise, why wouldn’t even the most fanatical Europhile, seeing the EU’s share of the world economy sliding to just 60 per cent of what it was in 1990, acknowledge that drastic reform even more significant than that the UK is proposing is vital to the sustainability of the whole EU project. If they are not willing to wake up and smell the coffee, how can the EU have a future for us or any of them?
The third area where the Prime Minister needs to change the record is about timing. The undertaking is to deliver a straight In/Out referendum by the end of 2017. Yet June 23rd is now the date in the frame – a date 18 months before the final deadline. Some of our less altruistic negotiating partners, sensing the Prime Minister’s self-constricting haste at getting a deal in Brussels this time round, may not be so forthcoming. Recently, I have tabled questions to every Government department asking what preparations they have made for the contingency of a Leave vote. The almost ubiquitous answer parroted is: “The Government is fighting hard to fix the aspects of our EU membership that cause so much frustration in the United Kingdom – so we can get a better deal for our country and secure our future. We are confident that the right agreement can be reached.’ In other words, there is no Plan B, and the Prime Minister has revealed his hand before the other players even call.
If he insists on going early – particularly this early – there will be many who will rightly ask: why he didn’t take it to the wire, so that he really can say that he got the best possible deal he could for Britain and the future of the EU? The early brigade have argued that 2017 will be dominated by French and German elections – but the latter will be over by the October of that year at the latest, leaving time for an autumn referendum and with the UK occupying the chair as President of the UK Council. What better time to influence the EU agenda setting and concentrate 27 other minds on the importance of getting the UK’s reform package right?
With the polls showing that there is all to play for, the worst scenario would be an early narrow Remain vote victory which triggers interminable arguments about the validity of the whole referendum exercise. Such a scenario would leave not just the Conservative Party but the country in a turmoil of recrimination at a time when our unhappy relationship with the EU needs to be resolved one way or the other. Alternatively, if the vote goes pear-shaped for the Prime Minister, there be those next year who will look to recycle Jessica Garlick’s (who?) third placed Eurovision entry from 2002: Come back.