Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
On June 23, the Conservatives will fulfill our manifesto commitment, and a referendum will be held on the UK’s membership of the European Union. We are right to ask the British people if we should remain in it or leave it. It has, though, been a long and not always good-tempered campaign – and one which has undoubtedly done some harm to the reputation of our party.
I admit that I’m not sorry that this will be the last column in which I mention the issue pre-poll, and I look forward to joining with my fellow Conservative MEPs to start bringing the party back together and implementing the public’s decision.
But whatever the outcome, Conservative MEPs have a busy time ahead. If the UK remains in the EU, we are going to be at the forefront of the reform process, focusing on cutting waste, ensuring that British interests are safeguarded and recruiting allies to our cause. A vote to exit will hand MEPs the task of ensuring that we do so on the most favourable terms possible, negotiating with colleagues behind the scenes and arguing our case in the parliamentary chamber.
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If the UK stays in the EU, one of the projects that your MEPs will be working on is the Energy Union. A properly functioning, competitive market in which businesses and individuals can buy their gas and electricity from any company in Europe is the best way of delivering low prices.
To achieve this, continued investment in interconnection is required, and I am pleased that the European Commission has approved a number of infrastructure projects, particularly new interconnection capacity between the UK and Ireland, France and Belgium.
Improving interconnection also increases energy security. I want the European gas market to be so well connected that, even if Putin turns off the gas taps to Eastern Europe, we will be able to supply the whole of the continent, businesses can keep going and no one will go cold in the winter.
The EU also has a role to play in sharing best practice to help member states tackle fuel poverty, while resisting the temptation to overregulate. Unfortunately, socialists find overregulation irresistible.
For every praiseworthy element in the Delivering a New Deal for Energy Consumers report that Theresa Griffin, a Labour MEP, presented to the European Parliament last week, another proposed to take the EU into territory where it has no business straying. Does anyone believe, for instance, that Griffin’s call for “a broad, common but non-quantitative definition of energy poverty” would achieve anything at all?
She and her colleagues ought to conserve energy and stop trying to drive the EU down these political blind alleys.
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Looking ahead, MEPs will also be looking at ways to improve the functioning of the Single Market. The tariff-free access it provides to 500 million consumers is, for me, the most persuasive argument for staying in the EU.
But despite all its advantages, anyone who deals with the single market on a regular basis – and some 200,000 UK businesses do – will tell you that it is a work in progress. Last week, the European Parliament backed a Conservative report setting out a series of improvements.
Tariffs may have been swept away, but other barriers to trade still exist. Product-type approvals are still not always recognised across the EU, meaning that manufacturers of kit cars approved for use on UK roads, for example, have to meet a different set of standards before selling their vehicles in Belgium.
The same is true of some professional qualifications. British ski instructors cannot work in France without passing that country’s own test, while architects often face similar hurdles.
Of course, a number of these national rules can be justified. The UK’s tough fire safety standards are acceptable, despite making it more difficult for foreign furniture manufacturers to sell into the British market, because they provide extra protection for consumers. However, many other barriers are nothing more than thinly disguised protectionism.
My colleague Dan Dalton, who piloted last week’s report through the parliament, sets out three criteria by which obstacles to trade should be judged. He argues that any which are discriminatory, disproportionate or do not serve a legitimate public policy should be swept away.
Having secured a hefty majority in parliament, the report will now be considered by the European Commission. Whether or not we stay in the EU, it is in our interests that its conclusions are acted upon.