Andrea Leadsom is Minister of State for Energy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and MP for South Northamptonshire.
The United Kingdom is at a crossroads. On June 23rd we have to make the biggest decision we will make in our lifetimes – a decision that will affect the future for our children and grandchildren and shape the prospects for the UK for decades to come. There is no doubt in my mind that the road we should be taking is the one of freedom, of democracy, and of global opportunity.
As the world’s fifth biggest economy and a founding member of NATO, and with historic ties to the 53 Commonwealth States as well as to our European and US allies, we have a truly great future ahead of us if we Vote Leave next month.
There are those who think ‘don’t rock the boat’, or ‘why change things?’ or ‘we can’t go it alone because we are too small’. What I would say to them is that, a few years ago, I also wanted to believe that the European Union was the answer for the UK – that we are better off sticking together.
That’s why in 2011, with my MP colleagues Chris Heaton Harris and George Eustice, I founded the Fresh Start group of Conservative MPs. Our plan was to look in detail at every aspect of the EU, getting right under the bonnet of the huge engine of the European Commission, to look at how it currently affects our lives in the UK and specifically how, with fundamental reform, it could be so much better not just for the UK but for all of its members.
We had 124 Conservative MPs turn up to our first meeting. I’ve never before or since seen such a huge turnout in support of a single goal – to improve the EU. Over many months of detailed hearings on areas as diverse as EU budgets, immigration, trade and employment, we met with dozens of experts – from human rights lawyers and business leaders to leading surgeons and trades unionists.
Many colleagues from the group – Tim Loughton, a former Children’s Minister; Dominic Raab, Justice Minister; Priti Patel, Work and Pensions Minister and Penny Mordaunt, Armed Forces Minister, all now campaigning to leave the EU, were closely involved throughout the reform project.
Working with the think-tank Open Europe, we put together our Manifesto for Change, which you can read here. To be clear: the Fresh Start Group in those days shared the presumption that we would remain in the EU, and that our detailed work would inform a renegotiation in the interests of all EU members.
So we were delighted when the Prime Minister announced his plan to hold an In/Out referendum following a renegotiation. In support, we published our Mandate for Reform, a set of clear proposals for the changes we believed would serve our national interests by making the EU more flexible, more competitive, and more outward-looking.
We all know that David Cameron worked hard for a renegotiation, and we had high hopes of success considering that it was backed up by the certainty of a UK referendum on our membership. So was the EU able to take a sober look at itself in the mirror, and realise that its greatest chance of future success lies with fundamental reform? Surely with the threats posed by austerity and the migrant crisis, this above all would be the time for it to do so.
Sadly not – as the meaningless reforms on offer show clearly that the UK’s legitimate concerns have not been taken seriously, and that despite the Prime Minister’s effort there is no appetite for reform of the EU. There is simply no recognition that the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU is potentially a fatal weakness, or that the blanket insistence on unrestricted movement of people is incompatible with widely divergent living standards between member countries.
Now, as June 23 draws closer, there is a huge appetite among voters for a clear, objective and positive vision of how the UK would thrive outside the EU. That is why, over the coming weeks, MPs from the Fresh Start team will be setting out on ConservativeHome and elsewhere how the UK would forge beneficial new arrangements across a series of policy topics – including trade, agriculture, immigration, energy, financial services and security: just a few of the areas people say they want to know about in making this crucial decision.
And a final message to those who say we should stay in the EU and reform it from within. We tried; David Cameron tried; we did not succeed. The logic of that failed negotiation is clear. The Europeans are our friends and allies – we should keep it that way and Vote Leave on June 23.