Lorraine Mullally of Open Europe says that voters are ready for real reform of the EU and next June’s European Elections are an opportunity for David Cameron to provide it.
With Glenrothes out the way, the next big electoral contest in the calendar is the European elections in June 2009. That might seem a relatively long way off, but the Conservatives have got some serious thinking to do before then.
Europe is going to be a bigger issue than some in the party would like it to be. The Euro elections offer an opportunity to make some early headway on this powerful issue which, if mishandled, has the potential to wreak havoc.
When the Government lined up with the Lib Dems to prevent the promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty back in the spring, it left a bad taste in the mouths of voters.
And while the world’s eyes are on Obama and the credit crisis, people in the Brussels bubble continue their dreary obsession with pushing through the Lisbon Treaty – despite the minor issue of its rejection by the people of France, the Netherlands and Ireland.
By the time we get to the European elections, some stitch-up will be well underway for ratifying the Treaty in Ireland – whether it be a second referendum, or some messy fudge involving the hijacking of Croatia’s accession treaty.
All this has the potential to remind British voters what a sham EU democracy really is, and reignite some of the anger that propelled more than 150,000 people in only ten constituencies to turn out and vote in the I Want A Referendum campaign earlier this year.
How the public lost faith in Brussels
The Europhiles argue that the public find Europe boring and don’t really care about it. This argument reflects the underlying weakness of their position. It may be true that other things are higher on the public’s list of priorities, but the European elections will bring the EU into focus as an issue. And when the public do think about Europe, their view is clear.
The EU is now the least popular it has been in Britain in 25 years. Not since 1983, when Thatcher was haggling for the UK rebate, has it been so unpopular. According to European Commission polls, at a high point in 1991, 57% of British people thought the EU was broadly a good thing, compared to 13% who thought it was a bad thing. Now, only 30% of British voters think EU membership is a good thing, compared to 32% who think it is a bad thing. This is despite the fact that all the main parties are broadly in favour of EU membership.
Add to that the result of the ITN poll taken recently in
Luton, in which, out of 3,000 voters, a stunning 54% said they favoured
leaving the EU, while only 35% wanted to stay in.
The median voter is now strongly in favour of taking powers back from
the EU. At the European elections, they are going to want to see
people who reflect their feeling of disenfranchisement and who are
willing to do something about it.
It would be madness for candidates to ignore this clear message of strong public discontent with the EU.
Failing to address it would show them up in the same light as the
Government, and the European Commission, both of which have forged
ahead with the Lisbon Treaty, despite
poll after poll
showing voters are firmly against it.
The “won’t vote” party
The threat for the Conservatives is less that they will lose votes to
UKIP, and more that they will fail to energise voters. Their biggest
competitor party is the “won’t vote” party.
Turnout at the last elections was just 38%. In other words the “won’t
vote” party made up 62% of the electorate, compared to just 10% for the
Conservatives and 8% for Labour.
In focus groups over recent years people have often told us they think
that although the Conservatives talk about taking a tough line in
Brussels, “if they got in they would probably just go along with it.”
It is this toxic cocktail of cynicism and apathy that is the main
problem for the Conservatives. They need the kind of clear, strong
message we saw in William Hague’s successful 1999 campaign.
New politics versus old
So what can candidates actually do to represent change? Voters need to
be given some kind of hope that the people they elect have some means
of impacting on the fraud, waste and lack of accountability they see
coming from Brussels and Strasbourg.
First of all, MEPs could start by responding to Open Europe’s
Transparency Initiative, launched earlier this year, which gives MEPs
the opportunity to show the public that their expenses and staff
allowances are being spent fairly and transparently.
So far, Green MEPs have been the most responsive, with a 100% reply
rate. By contrast, only half of all Conservative MEPs responded to the
survey, leaving questions over the remaining MEPs’ attitudes to public
accountability. Among those failing to respond were James Elles and
Timothy Kirkhope – the two contenders for the leadership contest on 18
November. Why have they not responded?
In his Birmingham
speech, David Cameron said unequivocally and to loud applause that his
commitment to “sorting out our broken politics” extended to Europe. He
said, “this is about the judgment to see how important this issue is for the
credibility of politics and politicians. And it’s about having the
character to take on vested interests inside your own party.”
That was a wonderful moment, and it must surely mean that those who have done the wrong things cannot stand again…
Secondly, the party leadership should now be drafting a manifesto for
June which makes some serious commitments to reform, and paves the way
for some even more careful thinking on Europe ahead of the General
Election. These do not need to be comprehensive or overly detailed, as
there will be time for further reflection later. But they need to lay
the groundwork and give voters some inclination what they might expect
from a Conservative government.
For starters, one idea would be a promise not to approve the EU’s next
financial framework (which we can veto) without a number of reforms.
One such reform might be progress on the world trade round. Europe’s
protectionism is the main obstacle to a poverty-relieving deal.
Another might be action to sort of the EU’s failing environmental
policies. Another might be measures to stop the flood of EU rules and
regulations (there are 2,000 new ones every year) from crippling our
Another big demand might be a serious assessment of the fraud, waste
and misallocation of resources that currently dogs the EU budget.
Remember: the EU budget hasn’t signed been off by the Court of Auditors
for 13 years in a row, and the EU’s own figures show that it loses a
million pounds every working day to fraud and irregularities.
There are also big things the Conservatives could do without asking anyone in Brussels.
They could introduce the parliamentary scrutiny system common in
Scandinavia, whereby Ministers must seek a mandate to sign up to EU
laws from the cross-party European Scrutiny Committee. This would help
our Parliament stop its powers from haemorrhaging away to Brussels.
How to win friends and influence people
David Cameron has already promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty if
it is not ratified by the time he gets to government, as well as a
clear commitment to pull the party out of the EPP after the European
elections. He must now build on this to show that his individual
candidates are up to the job of campaigning for real change.
This means they need to be fully prepared to show exactly what “we will
not let matters rest there” really means. There is no better time to
showcase this than in June when voters go to the polls – with the
bullying of the Irish (and the cancelled UK referendum) likely to be
fresh in their minds.
At the moment voters don’t feel they can make an impact in European
elections. But the Conservatives certainly can make an impact on
voters – sending out a message that their commitment to “hope” and
“change” extends all the way to Brussels and Strasbourg.