Andrea Leadsom is the Member of Parliament for South Northamptonshire.
The rest of Europe is belatedly accepting an uncomfortable truth – that the status quo in the EU is utterly unsustainable.
Part of this realisation has, of course, been because of the need to shore up the Euro. However, at the same time, the last couple of years has seen voters and key decision-makers across Europe wake up to the twin crises of competitiveness and democracy that are the result of the fundamental inadequacy of the EU’s current structures.
All of this begs an obvious question. What happens next?
In the Fresh Start Project (FSP), our position has been clear and consistent. Since setting up the FSP in 2011, we have argued that the answer must be for the EU to be radically overhauled, and for the UK to be a leader in that process.
Everything we’ve done has been geared towards building a comprehensive set of proposals on how to achieve an EU that is: globally competitive; democratically accountable; and flexible, to meet the priorities of its Members.
This policy-making work culminated with the publication last November of FSP’s Draft Negotiating Mandate for Reform, which summarises the changes that we believe are necessary:
Throughout this process, we have consulted widely via the hearings of the All Party Group for EU Reform, and have taken advice from MPs, MEPs, decision-makers and opinion-formers in other Member States.
Discussions with MPs from other Member States have been striking – early on, they tended to assume that we were interested only in getting the best deal for the UK as a ‘cherry picking’ exercise. But, in recent conversations, it’s clear that our message of serious and profound reform has got through. They, too, face the consequences of many of the EU’s failings that are highlighted in our work, and we have found support for a great many of our proposals.
In order to build on the many discussions which FSP Colleagues have held in numerous EU Member States over the past year, last week Fresh Start and the think tank Open Europe co-hosted the Pan-European Conference for EU Reform. The two-day event brought together 300 delegates from over 30 countries, including eight Ministers, a European Commissioner, former heads of state, politicians and business-leaders.
There was clear agreement over the need for reform, and significant agreement over the types of reform that we should pursue.
George Osborne gave the keynote address, and made it very clear that the status quo in the current relationship between the UK and the EU is, indeed, unsustainable and that Treaty change is necessary. He argued that “those in Brussels are being forced into legal gymnastics as they try to stretch the existing Treaties to fit a situation they were not designed for.” He went on to state that “instead of make-do-and-mend, we should make the Treaties fit for purpose.”
German and Italian leaders, among others, share this view, which gives great hope to reformers like me, who believe that we can negotiate a better EU, and a better place for the UK within it.
The current situation is not acceptable to the British people, many of whom have made clear that it fails to meet our national interests. The only way for the Government to put things right is to renegotiate the relationship and to put those new terms to the UK’s voters in a referendum – something which, of course, only the Conservative Party is committed to doing.
Last week’s conference was designed to build on the work of the Fresh Start Project and show that the Conservative Party are people with whom the rest of the EU can do business, and that the changes we advocate are sensible, in the wider collective interest and achievable.
It’s fair to say that the conference was a considerable success. Its many highlights included:
- Commissioner Maria Damanaki reflecting that “bureaucracies like the European Commission want to change the world, but not themselves”
- George Osborne making clear that unless new rules can be agreed to protect the rights of non-Euro members, the UK and other non-Euro members would have to choose between joining the Euro and leaving the EU
- Rachida Dati, Vice President of France’s UMP and a former Justice Minister, demonstrating that immigration is a massive electoral issue in France, and noting that the conference could be “a cornerstone” of EU reform
- David Lidington arguing that citizens increasingly look to the EU to bring prosperity, rather than just peace, and that in this role it is viewed as failing (he also proposed a series of sensible measures to enhance the role of member states within EU decision-making, such as setting clear strategic priorities for the new European Commission, including what they shouldn’t do, and reviewing progress annually)
- Paschal Donohue, the Irish Minister for European Affairs, arguing for a better way to review existing laws, including greater use of sunset clauses, and a “green card” for national Parliaments which allows a group of them to mandate the Commission to bring forward changes to existing laws
- Break-out sessions covering practically every aspect of EU reform, from justice to trade, and democracy to financial services
- The clear agreement of almost all participants that decision-making structures need to be reformed to protect the interests of non-Euro Member States, given that the Eurozone will have an inbuilt majority of votes after 2015
- Widespread agreement over the need for economic reforms to make the EU more competitive, including better regulation, exemptions for micro-businesses, progress on free-trade deals with the rest of the World, including the US, China and Brazil, and more support for new technologies such as life sciences
- The entertaining results of a “build your own EU budget” session, during which almost every delegate agreed on significant cuts to the agriculture and regional spending budgets, and increases in funding for trans-national research and development funding.
The success of the conference, and the work which underpinned it, is critically important on a number of levels.
For example, it shows that there is considerable common ground between the UK and the other 27 member states in their respective assessments of the issues and how these could be resolved.
In terms of UK politics, it shows that serious engagement offers the very real prospect of reforming the EU so that it fully serves the British people’s interests.
Even if, (as is perfectly possible), the terms on offer after that renegotiation are not acceptable to the British people, I firmly believe that it is our role as politicians to give it a real go, rather than giving up on it.