Buckland RobertRobert Buckland is the Member of Parliament for South Swindon,
 Joint Secretary of the 1922 Committee
and Chairs the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. Follow Robert on Twitter

In recent weeks, there has been a
lot to quietly celebrate about the positive steps that we have been making in
matters EU.  Britain has helped to
negotiate the first ever real terms cut in the EU budget; our MEPs have junked
the repulsive ‘discards’ practise and restored national control to fisheries
management; and, finally, we are leading the charge to reform the EU so that the
twin aims of enhancing trade and completing the single market are met.  At home, the announcement by the Prime
Minister of a referendum on our future membership of the EU has allowed the
debate to move from one of process to one that is concerned with the merits of
our continued membership.

In the minds of many critics, it
is fair to say that, only a few months ago, all of the above seemed literally
fantastic.  The controversial Common
Fisheries Policy seemed to be part of the EU furniture, ugly but immovable.  The EU budget had a sense of the inevitable
to it, rising every time without regard to the economic reality in member
states.  Meaningful talks about
streamlining the EU and issues such as free trade with the rest of the world
seemed to be very far down the agenda. 
The domestic debate about the EU was dominated by those who believe that
our membership is a problem.  All of this
is changing.

One of the problems that has
concerned me about our attitude to the EU is a sense that, at home, there has
been a lack of self-belief when it comes to our role and influence in
Europe.   For too long, the perception
has been that British representatives walk into the institutions of the EU and
leave days later, dazed and mugged of their possessions.  In fact, there is nothing to fear about being
in the EU.  Time and time again, we have
been remarkably successful at securing our national interest within the EU,
with recent events serving to reiterate this point.

The Single Market, lauded as the
most valuable part of our membership, was a fundamentally British creation.  If
we had not been banging the drum for an economically liberal and
business-friendly Union, the single market would have never been created.  We have played a leading role, along with
the French, in promoting European defence co-operation and this has been
abundantly displayed in Mali.  The City
of London’s role is valued all the more by global business and finance because
it is the primary gateway for investment in the entire EU.  Make no mistake, as one of the world’s largest
economies, Britain is one of the EU’s major players.

Britain’s influence in the EU was
a key reason why David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech received an encouraging
response in many quarters.  Chancellor
Merkel of Germany has some sympathy with our reformist aims; without her
support, the budget cut would not have been achieved. She realises that the EU
must be more efficient and competitive. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the
Netherlands, shares our desire to see some powers repatriated to the Member
States.  He knows that empowered Nation States are integral to the legitimacy of
the EU.  Alexander Stubb, Foreign
Minister of Finland, recognises that there has already been a lot of
differentiation within the EU.  He
understands that an identikit EU is not the be-all and end-all to the European

Other recent events have also
helped to remind us of the importance of the EU to us.  President Obama’s reference in his State of
the Union speech to the need for an EU-USA free trade agreement (FTA) was
significant.  A proper agreement could
help to boost annual GDP growth in the EU by 0.5% and would follow hot on the
heels of the South Korea-EU FTA.  On
another note, the growing horsemeat scandal is a European-wide problem in
search of a European-wide solution.  As
Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural
Affairs, said: "It's increasingly clear the case reaches right across
Europe. Europol is the right organisation to co-ordinate efforts to uncover all
wrongdoing and bring criminals to justice".

It is not easy to get our way in
Europe; it never is when you are dealing with twenty-six other Member States.  It requires expertise, dedication and
sometimes just a bit of luck.  However,
it can be done.  David Cameron’s sterling effort in Brussels, backed up by
relentless and sustained work from Europe Minister David Lidington and his
officials prior to the European Council, secured a tidy 3% reduction on the previous
budget proposals, when the European Commission had asked for a 5% increase.
This is what can happen when we roll up our sleeves and engage in the cut and
thrust of the debate, haggling line-by-line with our partners.

History has surely taught us that
we must stay at the heart of Europe precisely so that we can reform it. Whether we like it or not, our fortunes are
intricately linked with those of the continent.  Instead of shouting from the sidelines,
Britain is taking its place again at the head of the table, helping the EU to
face up to its many problems.  Offering
constructive criticism and robust challenge where necessary is the hallmark of
a true friendship with our EU partners.  I for one am very glad that the Government are doing just that.