Chris Skidmore is Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a member of the Education Select Committee. Follow Chris on Twitter.
For many years, a political narrative has been woven in the belief
that there is no alternative to European Union. The status quo must remain,
while further integration into the European 'projet' must be seen as
inevitable, the consequence of Britain's slide into the mediocrity of a second
rate power. This narrative has been too dominant for too long. Back in 1999,
the establishment of various political hues told us that Britain had to accept
its European fate and that we had to join the Euro. Such defeatism seemed to
have its place right at the heart of policy-making. Some of its proponents such
as Peter Mandelson even found a place at the Cabinet Table.
There can be no doubt that the belief in ever-closer Union has had a corrosive
effect on British politics. Be it Tony Blair’s decision to surrender our rebate
or Gordon Brown’s signing of the Lisbon Treaty, the belief that European
integration must be embraced has led to some of the worst policy decisions of
the last 40 years.
History is beginning to witness a change: for the first time, mainstream
opinion is moving towards tearing apart the fabric of the cosy consensus that
Britain must stand or fall with its European neighbours, or become isolated,
set apart from an EU state bent on political unification. David Cameron's
determination to argue for a real-terms cut in the EU budget was seen as
attempting a leap too far: yet this determination has brought with it success,
with an agreement that the budget can be reduced as the Prime Minister argued.
And for the first time, a British political leader broke the trend of his
predecessors with his pledge in January to renegotiate our EU membership and
offer of an In/Out referendum. For the first time in many years, we have a Prime
Minister who challenges the idea of “ever closer union”. Yet his decision was
derided by pro-Europeans, with one even dubbing the idea as “clinically
Sadly, such insults are nothing new. For years devout pro-Europeans have sneered at those who disagreed with them. We were told that Euroscepticism was the
preserve of the unintellectual, the fantasy of those who refuse to recognise
basic truths about how the world operates – a smear calculated to portray those
who believe that there is an alternative as merely 'little Englanders',
isolationists looking inwards with little thought for the future.
This unfortunate view neglects the fact that there are many in this country,
regardless of their political leanings, who do not share the belief that
Britain's future in Europe should be cast within the debate of national
decline. From all walks of life, a new consensus is emerging that we should be
able to reflect upon our position within Europe. Several months ago, over five
hundred business leaders came forward to press the case for a new settlement
with the EU.
Today, over twenty distinguished historians have signed a letter (£) backing the growing calls for a major renegotiation of Britain’s membership of
the EU. The letter’s signatories recognise that Britain's relationship with our
European neighbours has in the past been one of constant renegotiation: in
every age, treaties, truces and alliances have been signed that reflected the
changing world then. Placed in this historical context, it would be foolish to
remove British freedom to do so once again; just as in the past, we must be able
to reflect the changing world today.
It is to be welcomed that these historians
make not just this important point, but have chosen to enter into the political
conversation that needs to be had. We turn our face arrogantly against the past
if we only listen to the self-belief of those fixated by the present. The
letter demonstrates that there is also a wider debate to be had outside of the
confines of Westminster: our future in Europe should not just to be fought over
by politicians, but also by those whose experience and knowledge we should
listen to and respect. Renegotiation is no longer the clarion call of the few:
it has become the new mainstream voice across the country.
With youth unemployment in Greece at over 60 per cent and signs that the Euro crisis could
soon hit Italy, it is becoming increasingly clear the pooling of sovereignty,
far from delivering the prosperity which Brussels promised a decade ago, has
instead impoverished half a continent. We may, thankfully, be outside of the
single currency, but European initiatives – ranging from the brazen attempts of
the Commission to impose a Financial Transactions Tax on the City, to minor
irritating proposals like banning olive oil dishes – still exert a negative
effect on our politics, society and economy.
History demonstrates that Britain has adapted, challenged and even left many
international alliances and organisations over the course of our long history.
As in centuries past, we have nothing to fear from demanding a fairer deal
from our European partners. Choosing to stay in the EU under our current terms
of membership is a gamble we can no longer afford to keep taking. It is only
right for the government to try and get a better deal and for that deal to be
put to the British public. It is apt then that this week, politicians will have
the opportunity to make history when a Bill for an EU referendum will be
presented to Parliament. They must seize the chance, regardless of political
persuasion, to do so. To deny the British people a say in their future is as
regrettable as to blindly walk away from what historians can inform us about
our past, namely we should never fear to renegotiate.