Last month Angela Merkel noted that Europe might only represent 7% of the world’s population and 25% of global GDP but that it accounted for 50% of social spending. Moreover, Europe’s share of world commerce is declining at the same as the continent’s population is ageing and therefore becoming more needy. The growing pension and welfare bills have huge implications for the future tax burden on Europe’s wealth creating businesses and entrepreneurs. Germany’s Chancellor knows that every European economy – as well as the European Union itself – needs to modernise to survive in what David Cameron has rightly called “the global race”. The increasingly competitive international economy, the continuing implications of the seemingly now chronic Eurozone crisis and widening demographic imbalances are only three of the biggest reasons why our continent must change significantly in the years ahead. This, more than domestic politics, is the context for David Cameron’s much anticipated speech on Europe, to be delivered, earlier than expected, in the Netherlands on Friday.
At ConservativeHome we, the Editors, hold different views about Britain's ideal future relationship with the EU but we are agreed that David Cameron should make at least three core commitments within his Europe speech. Informed by the polling of grassroots Tories that we published yesterday we will judge his speech on whether he makes those commitments.
Commitment one should be a serious commitment to renegotiate not just a new British relationship with Europe but also be a lead advocate for a new and more dynamic Europe for all of its citizens. Cameron, for many understandable reasons, wants Britain to remain a member of the EU but he, like most Britons in all political parties, is not satisfied with the status quo. He worries that Europe has become too inward-looking and its grandiose one-size-fit-all projects no longer fit the times we live in. Other European nations’ desire to form some kind of ever closer fiscal and banking union will almost certainly involve treaty changes in the years ahead. We may not agree with the Franco-German model of deeper integration but we should give our blessing to that integration if other member states agree that Britain should, in return, have a looser relationship with Brussels – one more like the arrangement that the British people consented to in 1975. We must argue for an economically open Europe that helps lead the world towards freer trade and an embrace of the technologies that have such huge potential to heal, enrich and educate.
Commitment two must be to hold a post-renegotiation referendum. That referendum should ask a simple question: ‘Do the British people want to stay in the European Union on the new terms as negotiated by the British government or do they want to leave?’ This referendum will mean that voters who were born after June 1957 and thus unable to participate in the 1975 referendum will have their first opportunity to say whether they want to be part of the European Union. It will address the reported concern of Michael Gove and other Tory Cabinet ministers who feel that, without some threat of British withdrawal, our negotiating position may lack force. A referendum commitment will also put a lid on UKIP’s growth and offer the possibility that the centre right as a political force can be again knitted together.
Commitment three must be to find a way of reassuring the British people that any referendum promise won’t be broken. Given that renegotiations will probably last three to five years the promised referendum might not be held until 2018 or even 2019. The British people will be patient if they believe that they will finally get their say but a manifesto promise won’t be enough to convince many of them that they will. The Prime Minister should announce his intention to introduce enabling legislation in this parliament and invite the Lib Dems and Labour to either join him in giving the British people a say or face the consequences at the ballot box.
Some like to argue that Europe does not matter to voters. That, on the face of things, may appear to be true but it ignores the effect of European policies on our ability to compete in the world and to control our borders. It ignores Europe’s growing power over criminal justice, environmental and foreign policies.
Others like to argue that Europe is only an issue of importance to Tory and UKIP supporters. Let us not forget that most heartland Labour voters are what their party’s leaders would call Eurosceptics. Even within our Coalition partner party there are MPs who are much more anxious about the European project than Team Clegg and the Liberal Democrat old guard in the House of Lords. Lib Dem MPs know that their supporters across Britain – especially in the west and east of England – have had enough of the economic misery caused by the Eurozone and the social injustices caused by the EU's agricultural and fisheries policies.
There is no denying, however, that Europe has been most troubling for the Conservative Party and it has been troubling for nearly three decades. Margaret Thatcher's premiership came to an end when the pro-EU big beasts of the time exploited the unpopularity she was suffering as a result of wider economic troubles and the community charge. Europe caused John Major's time at Number 10 to be bedeviled by internal party splits. The extent and sometimes poisonous nature of Tory disunity helped produce the scale of Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory.
We are seeing the same unhappy patterns emerge again. The most persistent and dangerous parliamentary rebellions from Tory MPs – against the Coalition and against the Prime Minister – are on the issue of Europe. It is not without good reason that Europe has been likened to the Corn Laws as a splintering force within Conservative ranks.
For the first time since the second world war the centre right vote in our country is divided. That can only benefit the pro-Brussels leadership of the Labour Party and wider Left. UKIP's growth may have multiple causes but the issue of Britain's relationship with the rest of the continent is the essential raison d'être of Nigel Farage’s party.
Cameron has a huge opportunity in his speech on Friday. He has an opportunity to demonstrate he understands the challenge facing the European economies and the European social model. He also has an opportunity to park the European issue within domestic politics so that his government can focus on the immediate economic challenges as well as the NHS, welfare reform and other projects close to his heart and to the hearts of voters. If he gets it wrong he may find that it is increasingly difficult for him to maintain the confidence and unity of the Conservative Party.
Paul Goodman, Peter Hoskin, Tim Montgomerie and Harry Phibbs.