Andrew Lansley is a former Health Secretary and Leader of the Commons, and is MP for South Cambridgeshire.
Over two years ago, together with other like-minded colleagues, I urged David Cameron to commit to giving the people of Britain the right to decide (following a renegotiation) whether we should remain in a reformed European Union.
It is now clear to the British people that only a Conservative Government will give our people that choice. Only a Conservative Government will press for the reforms the EU needs. Labour and the Liberal Democrats won’t do it; and UKIP can’t deliver it.
Over the next six months we therefore have two key tasks: to secure a Conservative Government; and then to begin the fight to win that Referendum in 2017.
I am in no doubt that the Referendum can only be won by the strong advocacy of the Conservative Party in making the case for our continued EU membership.
We are the Party which puts the national interest first; we are the Party of free markets, of entrepreneurship and business, of economic credibility and of free trade. Which other Party can make the case for the Single Market? Or for a competitive, deregulated Europe? Or for a Europe which champions free trade across the globe?
We have to recognise that in Europe over the last 30 years, there has been a strategic conflict of ideas. On the one hand, the push for an ever closer Union of integration and the Euro, driven by some of our European partners. On the other, our liberalising philosophy, pushing for EU expansion; bringing new member states to new freedoms; and bringing all EU members by stages to a philosophical acceptance of the necessity of a deregulated, competitive Europe, the so-called Lisbon agenda.
Little wonder then that this conflict has brought about a certain ambivalence amongst Conservatives when discussing Europe. We are firmly resistant to ‘ever-closer union’ whilst being equally enthusiastic in support of EU expansion and completing the Single Market.
I share that ambivalence. I voted for a Common Market; and I want to see it happen.
I did not vote to join a United States of Europe and I never want to see that happen.
But I do not think there is any longer a need for us to be trapped in this dilemma. We can look to secure the Europe we want without being constrained to the integrationist outcomes we have so stoutly resisted.
We have already legislated in this Parliament to prevent any further transfer of powers from the UK to the EU without a referendum. We are outside the Euro: the rationale for which was always political integration, not economic competitiveness, as Mario Draghi frankly acknowledged just days ago. We are out of the Banking Union and the bank bail-out. We have secured a first-ever reduction in the EU budget. We are out of Schengen. And we are out of most Justice and Home Affairs measures.
Never have we been as successful at being ‘in’ when we want to be in; while being ‘out’ of ever-closer union.
Completing the Single Market has been a decades-long objective of Conservative politicians, starting with Margaret Thatcher. Why on earth should we want to give up on a project so dear to her heart now, when the balance inside the EU has shifted in support of free markets? Or when Britain’s liberalised and flexible markets are demonstrating our extraordinary capacity for growth and job-creation? Or when we have created more jobs in this country in the last four years than the rest of the EU combined? And when we can argue with evidence and conviction that opening up markets, liberalising services, freeing up labour markets across Europe, will stimulate more growth in our key markets?
The PM’s Bloomberg speech – and his speech on immigration last week, both offer a direct challenge to Europe to reform. But it has been rightly constructed as a challenge they can accept. Reforming immigration rules to inhibit benefit tourism, while permitting free movement for workers, will find support in other Member States. So will equipping National Parliaments with the power to block Commission initiatives which are disproportionate or violate subsidiarity. If we can also radically re-shape EU employment and social legislation, we can also roll back the costs and constraints both on British businesses and across Europe generally.
The argument that these laws protect jobs has been shown to have been a fallacy. A properly flexible labour market doesn’t mean that it is easier to sack people; it means that it is easier to employ people.
European voters consistently say that their priority is for more jobs, especially for their young people. In my constituency, youth unemployment is down by two-thirds in four years. What wouldn’t Spain, Italy and Greece give for those figures? These facts cannot be denied; nor can our European partners deny we have something to offer them in a reformed European market.
If we are to succeed in the renegotiation, we must focus on changes which deliver reform to all member states. We can’t stop integration driven by the Euro, but we can find common cause with many across Europe in reforming and liberalising the EU, and rolling back its institutional excesses.
When the debate comes, I believe the intellectual argument in favour of our continued EU membership will be compelling. Economic history tells us that the wider one’s access to labour and to markets, the greater one’s potential is for growth. Europe is still our dominant market and crux of our foreign policy interests, just as it has been for a thousand years.
And if our opponents tell us we can adopt a Norway-style relationship, I’d say two things: one, give us their sovereign wealth fund as a cushion, not the debt we’ve inherited from Labour; and two, why did the Norwegian Health Minister have to ring me up to get the UK to argue for her country’s position on food and drinks labelling?
The arguments will be there for us, but to benefit from them we must stop characterising every EU issue in terms of how we must stop them from doing more damage to us. It is not possible, or sensible, to spend years treating the EU as oppressive and excessive and then spend a few months explaining why we have to stay in it.
So the renegotiation must be conducted swiftly. Make no mistake, it can be. A Conservative majority next May will concentrate minds in the Chancelleries of Europe in a dramatic fashion. And, as the financial crisis showed, European Heads of Government can act quickly and impose their will on European institutions when they have to.
The Conservative Party is the party of our national interest. It therefore falls to us to win the debate for reform within Europe and for Europe with the British people to make sure exit doesn’t happen.
We must now make that leadership count in the months ahead, by fighting for what we all believe in: a reformed, deregulated, liberalised and competitive Europe; and a Europe that provides opportunities for our children to prosper.