Andrea Leadsom is the Member of Parliament for South Northamptonshire
The single most powerful force shaping the EU and how it evolves is coming from Germany. So we need to watch what happens there as we formulate our own plans for reform of Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Thanks to David Cameron, British voters will be given their say on that relationship in a referendum in 2017. As the UK plans for the root and branch renegotiation which must precede that referendum, it will be vital to understand how thinking is evolving in the corridors of power in Berlin, and more generally among the German people.
It’s not for British commentators to make judgements on how the German voted yesterday. However, there were important developments in the run-up to polling day – relating to how the Germans see their country’s relationship with the EU, and specifically with the UK – about which we should certainly reflect.
Others can judge the impact of Angela Merkel’s victory on Sunday, although the consensus is that EU policy is unlikely to change much – Germany will remain ‘pro-European’ in temperament and keep pressing for progress towards closer fiscal and monetary union in the Eurozone.
What I thought was most noticeable during the campaign, though, was the fact that support amongst voters for ‘slimming down’ the EU seems to be growing. A key pre-election poll, conducted for Open Europe Berlin, captured the mood quite well. It showed there is strong support for devolving power from the EU to Member States. By a margin of two to one, German voters say the German Chancellor should “back the efforts to decentralise power from the EU” to the national, regional, or local level.
On top of that, a majority of German voters support less Brussels involvement across a range of policy areas. Six in ten voters said decisions over criminal justice, regional development subsidies, and employment laws should be made by national politicians rather than at the EU level. Giving national Parliaments more powers to block unwanted EU laws also had the support of 60 per cent of voters.
These findings represent a significant shift in the terms of the debate on EU reform. They are also completely aligned with the Fresh Start Project’s (FSP) own analysis. For example, FSP’s recent trip to Berlin, where we discussed the future of the EU with senior politicians, left us with the impression that the desire for reform is there. German diplomats made the same points about the need for reform when we met them here in London soon afterwards.
It’s not just Germany either. The Dutch Government’s ‘Subsidiarity Review’ argued that power and responsibility should rest where it most belongs – at local, national, European, or global level depending on the issue. It stated that the “time of an ever- closer union in every possible policy area is behind us”, preferring instead to be guided by the principle “Europe where necessary, national where possible”. This is music to the ears of reformers like me.
FSP’s experience during a recent visit to Poland struck a similar note. A spokesman for the “Law and Justice” party told a press conference about the FSP reform agenda that they will “fully subscribe” to it. And discussions in the Czech Republic also showed a broad degree of support for reform, especially on liberalisation of trade and budgetary restraint.
These developments reinforce the sense that, across the EU, there is increasing support for a re-balancing of the relationship between the EU and individual Member States, and that the British Government can re-negotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU. So how best can the UK go about achieving our objectives?
The general view of well-informed observers of EU matters is that the changes needed to shore up the Euro will require some Treaty change. This certainly seems to be the expectation in the Netherlands. A spokesman for the Government told Parliament last week that EU Treaty change is “inevitable” and that “when we want less Brussels in several domains, to return whole policy areas, then we should not shy away from the option of Treaty change.”
Such a Treaty renegotiation would present opportunities for the UK – to argue for reforms that will achieve greater global competitiveness, greater democratic accountability and less of the strangling over-regulation. In other words, to argue for the FSP’s Manifesto for Change.
Attitudes towards the EU are changing rapidly, and in a way that strengthens the hand of those who want a fundamental shake-up of Britain’s relationship with Europe. For our part, FSP will continue to make the case for far-reaching reform, both here in the UK and during discussions with Parliamentarians in other EU capitals over the coming months.