Richard Ashworth is the leader of Britain's Conservative MEPs. Follow Richard on Twitter.
Yesterday I was in the audience at
Bloomberg to hear our Prime Minister set out to the country his
vision of our future relationship with Europe.
At the core of his message was
a warm and overwhelmingly positive vision of a reformed and
reinvigorated European Union, with British involvement at its heart and the single market its engine.
He stated, calmly and clearly, how
vital Europe is to the UK – and vice versa. He acknowledged that our close
involvement with the rest of Europe is an inevitable function of our history,
our geography, our culture and our politics. He carefully described these ties
that bind – ties which on some levels are unbreakable.
he also vividly diagnosed the sickness which we now see laying Europe
so low - its democratic remoteness, the euro's fragility and a
fundamental lack of competitiveness.
Disaffection over the
EU is growing across Europe. It is not only in Britain that citizens
increasingly see the EU as remote, unaccountable and costly. People begin to
see the union as the problem rather than the solution.
As Mr Cameron indicated,
however, it is in Britain where democratic consent for the EU has
worn wafer thin. That dissatisfaction must be addressed. That is why
Europe must change and we must help it do so.
Sometimes, it is true, the
antipathy is based on misconceptions or downright untruths about
what Brussels does or does not. Many of those EU myths are cheerfully
propagated by the shriller political voices and by elements of the media.
One of the benefits of the
referendum debate when it comes will be the opportunity to try
to separate truth from the lies over Europe. The electorate must be
allowed an informed decision based on sound facts and figures, not
posturing and polemics.
But for me the truly visionary part
of this excellent speech was not the offer of a referendum, but the
promise to seek an electoral mandate for a radical renegotiating and reshaping
of our engagement with the EU.
I share entirely his vision of a new
EU of flexibility and openness, of a Europe that focuses on investment in
technology, trade, research and enterprise. A Europe which continues to pull
down the barriers to the free flow of goods, talent and ideas, and stops
putting up its own obstacles to innovation, commerce and economic growth. A
Europe which understands that power can be allowed to flow back to its
nation states and not be drawn ever more centrally.
We need to help the EU start
listening to its citizens and stop lecturing them.
That question of tone will be crucial
when we set out to negotiate our new relationship and seek to repatriate
powers such as social and employment law.
We will not attempt to browbeat
people – as some in Brussels would allege and others would mistakenly
prefer. Our requests are reasonable and we will argue them reasonably.
The PM compellingly out
his own preference for Britain to remain part of the EU, but made it clear that
our commitment cannot be taken for granted.
Quite right. Because if
we can help Europe address its glaring failures - by
pushing for reform, focus on the single market and greater flexibility for
all its member states - then we will have done the EU a favour
as well as ourselves.
Europe successfully confronted the
problems facing our parents' generation. Now it is our turn to build a
different kind of Europe, fit for our children's generation.
There is a perception in some parts
that by issuing this challenge, the UK is being an awkward customer. That we
are the only ones wanting change when others do not.
Well, let's consider 25 per cent of
people out of work, 50 per cent youth unemployment in some countries, a
stagnant economy and a chronic lack of global competitiveness. If
that not creating a hunger for change in the rest of Europe it should be.
We British Conservatives led
Europe into its greatest achievements – the creation of the single market and
the EU's expansion to bring in former Soviet-bloc states. People portrayed
us then as the awkward squad – but we were right. And we are right
If we as Conservatives can show this
kind of leadership, within Britain as well as to the rest of Europe,
I believe we can forge an EU of the future which not only suits Britain's
requirements but saves the EU from itself.
Let me put three key questions
that will measure the success of yesterday's speech.
Is it a message the Conservative
Party can unify behind? Yes it is.
Did he set out a clear vision of how
Britain can enjoy a better future in Europe? Yes he did.
Are we now more likely to win the
chance to deliver that vision – through victory in the next general election?
Yes we are.
For me, DC ticked all the boxes.