Matthew Elliott is Chief Executive of Business for Britain.
The Balance of Competences review – an audit of the EU’s influence across government departments started in July 2012 – has just produced its second set of reports. As with the first release in July 2013, the latest reports make disappointing reading for anyone who would like to see the steady creep of the EU into Britain’s institutions reversed and the Prime Minister’s promised renegotiation deliver tangible changes.
What might have started life as an interesting exercise now seems to have been hi-jacked. Reading the reports, one is struck by the number of citations from organisations that are broadly content with the current status quo in Britain’s EU membership, while groups that could be described as “centre-right” – e.g. Policy Exchange, Civitas, the TaxPayers’ Alliance – are quoted sparingly (if at all) in certain reports, and their testimonies often casually dismissed in the report as the views of ‘lobby groups’.
It occurs to me that the situation with the Balance of Competences (BoC) is similar to that of the Prime Minister’s policy unit at the start of the Government’s period in office. Set up in February 2011, the Policy and Implementation Unit (PIU) was staffed by civil servants and reported jointly to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. The result was a clash of conflicting coalition positions that saw Conservative manifesto commitments fudged and most new initiatives copied straight out of the civil service playbook. In October 2013, David Cameron had enough of this bureaucratic mess and set up a Policy Board of ten of the Party’s most thoughtful and innovative MPs.
Something similar now needs to occur on the EU issue. The BoC reports claim to reflect different views, but in fact have very little to say, and while they do not come to explicit conclusions it’s clear that the intentions of the authors is to present a view which is broadly reflective of the current consensus in Whitehall. Big ideas and new thinking are in short supply, while praise for the EU, coupled with warnings about threatening the existing set-up, run through the documents like a stick of rock.
If the Conservatives are going to develop a plan for renegotiation that both captures the public imagination and delivers a much better deal for British businesses, it’s time new brains were drafted in – especially those who have a record of creativity on this issue. In the 2010 intake alone, we have MPs like Dom Raab, Andrea Leadsom and Jesse Norman, and there are also many other backbenchers and peers with extensive experience in this issue, including Ministerial office.
For its part, Business for Britain has already proposed something that we think fulfills the above criteria. While several passages in the latest BoC reports acknowledge that in certain areas the EU is harming competitiveness and increasing costs to businesses, the central problem with the Single Market – that it has a huge financial impact on businesses and organisations that never seek to trade in the EU – remains untouched. This is the West Lothian question for the EU debate, and ‘The British Option‘ is the first paper to propose a practical solution to this issue.
The Prime Minister took a bold but necessary step a year ago when he laid out his plans for renegotiating a new relationship with the EU. It has the overwhelming support of British business people and has reinvigorated those of us who want the EU to focus on trade and cooperation once more. This effort is too important to be left to the civil service machine alone. We also need some political muscle.