Richard Hyslop is a Conservative activist in Windsor
This year, the UK marks its 40th anniversary of EU membership. Do not worry if you were unaware of this fact: it is not as if the Government or anyone else is organizing a series of celebratory events to mark the occasion.
The Common Market of 40 years ago was a very different beast to the EU of 2013. The EU now has huge regulatory powers. In terms of relative impact, its powers, according to Open Europe, now exceed that of the UK Government, with at least 50 per cent of all regulation in the UK emanating from Brussels. The last 40 years have also seen a significant rise in the cost of EU membership. Figures produced by the UK Office for National Statistics state that membership now costs the UK £18.5 billion per year. As a maritime nation, the UK has a history of reaching out to and trading with the rest of the world. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the UK political establishment has never fully embraced our membership of the EU.
The mainstream media in the UK covers very little of what actually happens in Brussels. However, whether people like it or not, the EU is important. Increasingly, the real decisions are taken there and consequently it has a huge impact on our lives. How can we have an informed debate about the UK’s future relationship with the EU when few people understand the real impact the EU has on their daily lives? Even within our own party, debates about the EU which would once have taken place on the main stage at Party Conference have been increasingly pushed to the fringes, and as the fringe has become dominated by NGOs and lobbyists, debate on the EU seems have to ground to a halt. Only the excellent Freedom Zone now provides a platform for members to debate topics at conference, including the EU, deemed taboo by the Party hierarchy.
In January of this year, all this changed when David Cameron committed the Conservative Party to offering the people of the UK a referendum on our membership of the EU. All of us who want to have a genuine debate about the UK’s future relationship with the EU should welcome the opportunity we now have. This referendum will be held in 2017 following a renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s membership, with negotiations beginning after the next general election. Once this process is complete, the electorate will be offered a referendum between staying in on the new terms or leaving the EU altogether.
What will these negotiations look like? What do party members want the outcome of these negotiations to be? What powers do members want the EU to have and what powers do members want to repatriate? It is vitally important that grassroots party members debate these issues, not just with each other, but with politicians and other opinion formers. Any debate that is had must be free and open; members must feel that they can say what they really think. As Roger Scruton pointed out on these pages recently, debate on the EU in Westminster and the media focuses too often on the economic benefits of membership. What about issues of national sovereignty? Whatever your views it is important that David Cameron goes into those negotiations fully aware of what party members would like him to achieve.
In September, we will be holding just such a debate at our Conservative Renewal Conference. The debate will be chaired by Jonathan Isaby of the Taxpayers Alliance, and speakers will include John Redwood MP and Richard Ashworth MEP. This follows the successful debate we held at our 2012 conference when Phillip Lee MP chaired a lively discussion on whether the UK was stronger inside or outside of the EU. A capacity audience heard contributions from Dr Lee Rotherham, Daniel Hannan MEP, and Chris Howarth from Open Europe.
What we want is to help facilitate a debate between the grassroots and a range of leading figures from within the Party and without. We want you to come and listen to the arguments and then have your say. In September, we are delighted that Václav Klaus, former President of the Czech Republic will also be attending our conference and delivering the keynote address on the theme of Europe; again there will be plenty of opportunity for you to have your say.
Whilst the future shape of the EU remains uncertain, one thing we can be sure of is that the terms of UK membership of the EU will change as the Eurozone moves towards ever closer union. If David Cameron is not to be buffeted by events, he will need to set out a clear and deliverable vision for the UK and its relationship with the EU. Crucially, he must then lead and deliver on that vision and then let the people decide. It is vital that Conservative Party members have their say in this debate and send David Cameron a clear message as to what they want, so book now, come to Windsor on Saturday the 14th of September and join the conversation.