By one count there were 104 Conservative MPs; another put it at 120 – twice the total number of Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons. Either way, it was standing room only in the Thatcher Room in Portcullis House last night, as much of the parliamentary Conservative party (and the odd hanger-on like me) met to discuss Britain’s way forward with the European Union. It represented the entire range of opinion in the party, from Europhiles to withdrawalists, discussing what has historically been the party’s most toxic issue. So what was remarkable was what they didn’t say. There were no attacks on parliamentary colleagues. No demands that we pull out now. There was no mention – not once – of the Second World War. But there was a real sense that we could be witnessing – just possibly – history in the making.
Under the chairmanship of George Eustice, there was a calm determination to take advantage of what everyone agreed was a “golden opportunity” presented by the euro crisis to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU – with the aim of repatriating some powers. Contrary to media reports, the aim of the meeting was not to pressure the government into holding a referendum on pulling out of the EU – indeed, that was explicitly and repeatedly ruled out as a purpose of the new group. The government has very good reasons not to want to hold such a referendum – it would pull the coalition apart, it would stop the government doing any other policies, and the outcome would be very unpredictable.
Instead, the purpose of the group was to reach political agreement, backed by in depth research, into exactly what powers the UK could repatriate, and in what way. It is not a rebellion against the government – William Hague gave MPs a green light to attend in his interview with the Times on Saturday. Rather, it is helping the government to develop a political consensus on the way forward. This was a meeting of Conservative MPs, but the aim is to reach out to Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs in a truly cross-party movement demanding European reform.
The determinedly mainstream, pragmatic nature of the meeting was the result of four realities:
- Firstly, that some of the more Eurosceptic elements of the party have in the past done themselves no favours when it comes to winning followers. Fellow MPs, and members of the public, have been alienated by harsh rhetoric and strong passions.
- The second is that progress will only made if the party is united across its more Europhile and eurosceptic elements, and reaches out to other political parties which hold a similar range of opinions – not least Labour. Otherwise, it just turns into an old “Conservatives split on Europe” story.
- Thirdly, the Conservatives are not alone in government – but in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the most Europhile of parties, and nothing will be achieved unless we reach agreement with them.
- Finally, we will only get what we want in Brussels if we form meaningful alliances with other European countries, and we won’t get that if we sound like we’re trying to pull the whole house down. Rather, we have to show it is about making the EU work better.
Given the coalition, progress will only be made if there is agreement between Conservatives and Liberal Democratics on the need for EU reform. This is not as unlikely was it sounds. When I was Brussels correspondent of the Times, Nick Clegg, then an MEP, was an old lunching partner, and he is certainly not blinkered and ideological about the EU – indeed, given his public image, he is rather open minded. As the Mail on Sunday revealed, he wrote a pamphlet a decade ago calling for powers to be repatriated from the EU to member governments.
This is why I co-authored with Mats Persson a pamphlet for Open Europe published yesterday called The Case for European Localism, which lays out the reasons to repatriate powers, and suggests some options for doing so. The phrase European localism is targeted at the Achilles heal of the Liberal Democrat position – it is inconsistent at best to be a big supporter of pushing power down within the UK closer to the citizens, while wanting to centralise it in Brussels as far away from citizens as possible. As one former minister pointed out at the meeting last night, most Liberal Democrat MPs are aware of the inconsistency of their position. But they are trapped in a sort of ideological cul-de-sac – and one which is not remotely supported by the public. They should be encouraged out to join us in this new European mainstream, and welcomed when they make the move.
As someone involved in these arguments for many years, I am sure there is a common cause here that all UK political parties could agree on, and that the UK should adopt as our national strategy in the EU. Rather than “ever closer union”, with powers only ever going from national governments to Brussels, the UK should explicitly adopt as its strategy “European localism”, pushing more flexible EU where powers are devolved where possible and only centralised where necessary. We need to make that case and win allies, both within the UK and Europe, and forge a consensus about specific reforms.
In the pamphlet, Mats Persson and I suggest two dozen proposals for reform, ranging from things the UK government can do on its own, to ones that would require treaty changes (which we should try to win when France and Germany demand our support for pursuing fiscal union in the eurozone countries) . Our proposals include:
- Giving the House of Commons EU scrutiny committee the power to approve UK appointments of judges to the European Court of Justice (a proposal widely covered this weekend);
- A new “red card” mechanism whereby a majority of EU national parliaments could overrule EU legislation if they are opposed to it;
- A reverse ratchet, whereby a group of EU countries could agree to repatriate powers in certain areas;
- The government should look at possibility of taking the European Commission to the European Court of Justice for breaches of subsidiarity, which has been entrenched in EU law by the Lisbon Treaty;
- The government should unilaterally repatriate powers over Justice and Home Affairs, which it is entitled to do in 2014 under the Lisbon Treaty;
- The House of Commons should set up an Interparliamentary Taskforce on Localism, bringing like-minded MPs from across EU parliaments to forge a consensus on the way ahead.
It is only by getting clearer thinking and greater political consensus on reforms such as this that we will start to turn the tide of centralisation in Europe. And the tide might have started turning last night.