Andrea Leadsom is MP for South Northamptonshire. Elected yesterday as joint Chairman of the new All-Party Parliamentary Group for European Reform she reviews yesterday's first meeting and its focus on repatriating social policies.
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At a time of existential crisis in the Eurozone, it may seem harsh to some that a new All Party Group was set up yesterday to begin analysis of what and how powers may be repatriated to Britain from the EU. Eurozone leaders urgently need to shore up their currency with a substantial and solid financial underwriting. But while they focus on how to rescue their currency, it is vital that we don’t ‘down tools’ in looking at how Britain can get a better deal out of our EU membership.
Europe may not score highly when voters are asked to list their primary concerns, but most understand that the EU impacts on jobs, financial services, healthcare, working practices and immigration, to name but a few. In fact, the EU colours almost everything and at a time when its future is under the spotlight, it is vital that we are not simply passengers in a journey towards a Eurozone fiscal union, but that we also take a long hard look at what Britain wants out of the almost inevitable treaty changes that lie ahead.
The Government, through the Coalition Agreement, is committed to a number of potential changes, including examining the balance of the EU’s competences, limiting the application of the Working Time Directive and focusing on defending the UK’s interests in EU budget negotiations.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for European Reform duly had its first meeting yesterday and I was elected to be joint Chairman with Labour’s Thomas Docherty MP. The membership includes MPs and Peers of all parties and of all attitudes to the EU, ranging from those who would withdraw altogether to those who wish to remain inside but recognise a need for real change.
Our purpose is to set out and identify priority areas for the repatriation of powers and our challenge is to do this in a way that does not deprive us of access to the single market. The APPG will consider both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. It is difficult and rather technical work. EU law is impressively complicated, and the extent of ‘gold plating’ in this country can compound the complexity.
At the APPG, the think tank Open Europe made a detailed presentation on EU social policy, and how powers in this area might be repatriated. Stephen Booth summarised that report on ConservativeHome yesterday.
A number of interesting points emerged from the discussion that followed:
- First, that there are many ‘breaches’ already taking place within the EU. For example, Sweden is in contravention of its EU obligations by remaining outside the euro; technically, bailouts within the Eurozone are not permitted. Changes are needed!
- Second, the notion that the EU is always a ‘champion’ of workers’ rights is not true, so disillusionment in Social Policy may come from the ‘Left’ as well as the ‘Right’ of the political spectrum. For example, commercial airline pilots can be on duty for a maximum of nine hours at present, but the EU wants to extend this to nearly thirteen. The British Air Line Pilots’ Association is understandably extremely worried by this development. There is also concern from the left that the EU may undermine worker protections as member countries are encouraged to cut minimum wages and increase retirement ages to improve their competitiveness.
- A third area we focused on was the ‘technical’ side of repatriating powers. Even wholesale repatriation of social policy would not make relevant laws disappear overnight – having been enacted by the UK Parliament it would take Acts of Parliament to repeal them. Also, EU social policy has evolved hugely and encompasses not just social and health and safety regulations but a whole raft of employment laws. Open Europe advocate a double-lock approach: a legally binding protocol together with stripping from the European Court of Justice its right to review the way an opt-out is applied.
The current climate certainly offers an opportunity. The eurozone crisis will mean the seventeen eurozone countries have to work more closely together – it would be wrong if we fail to make the case for the UK to have greater control over laws which affect us. There is much talk of the seventeen caucusing against us. As they consider what Treaty changes they need to propose at the EU meeting in December so too should the UK Government – fiscal union will change the whole nature of the EU. As Margaret Thatcher once said in a different context, now is not the time to go wobbly.
The APPG will consider Financial Services at our next meeting in early December. This is not a popular industry, for understandable reasons. However, it’s one that still provides over 10% of UK total tax revenues and it faces a raft of new EU legislation that, if we do nothing to protect the City, may well leave us less competitive on world markets.
As the group continues its work, and as the Fresh Start Project (set up as a Conservative backbench initiative to propose priorities for future EU renegotiation), develops its own conclusions, I hope that we will be helping to set a strategic and tactical framework. I also hope that the Government will use our work to make good on the promise in the Coalition Agreement to ‘examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences’. What yesterday’s meeting showed is that there is broad agreement that the balance is currently off and needs to be significantly recalibrated.