Laura Sandys is the Member of Parliament for Thanet South. Follow Laura on Twitter.
The Europe Question for the UK could not have come at a better or a worse time. Better because we are forced by the global economic situation to look at our role in Europe dispassionately, but worse because the rational would resist navel-gazing and use this crisis to get on with reforming Europe from within.
Europe needs to confront some very big challenges. It faces some fundamental choices of whether to batten down the hatches and look inwards, or embrace freer, more flexible markets – a more internationalist rather than institutionalist response to our common economic difficulties.
Surprisingly for those who don’t believe we have influence, the UK’s plan for growth across Europe has gained a lot more traction over the last year, not least with Germany. The Prime Minister’s policy of greater flexibility across Europe with a deepening of the single market is not just hot air. 18 European member states have now signed up to his manifesto for reform.
With British ideas for reform supported by over two-thirds of the EU, our interests would be better served by investing time in building alliances rather than looking for the nearest exit.
Misleadingly, UKIP are providing us with simple, but false choices. To leave Europe is presented as a zero-sum game – “In the EU we are dominated by the iron grip of an authoritarian construct run by foreign-tongued bureaucrats. But, if we break free, we will be a liberated nation whose GDP will gallop ahead of those stagnant Europeans, as our former empire embraces our products and services…” Realistic? Non!
Exiting Europe or unilateral renegotiations are neither straightforward nor without great risks to our national interest. In the world of big politics and the rough and tumble of international negotiations, it is never a good idea to be on one’s own. We would never contemplate taking unilateral positions in NATO, at the WTO or in the UN Security Council and expect to succeed. If repatriating some policies is the ambition, then, believe it or not, it is one shared by others like the Scandinavians and the Germans. Even the Italians and the Spanish want out of the Working Time Directive. We will achieve much greater success if we build alliances, rather than simply deploy ‘Odd Man Out’ diplomacy.
Let’s stop being spooked by Europe. The UK should be taking a strong leadership role, rather than being marginalised at the fringes. The EU is a force multiplier for the UK from trade to defence and energy security. We also have friends and allies who want us at the heart of Europe. The Germans want us in to embed free trade, the French to project military power. The Americans want "a strong Britain in a strong Europe". It is perplexing that those who share a vision of a stronger Britain on the world stage would trade our position as a leader of the world’s largest trading bloc for that of a ‘Greater Britzerland’.