Time for some fresh thinking on Europe

The Daily Telegraph Online 23 October 2007

The EU’s Reform Treaty focuses the mind. If it is ratified and enforced, then the EU institutions will be accreting a wide range of extra powers. There will be a full-time President and an EU Foreign Minister. The number of national vetoes will be reduced and Britain’s powers to block EU legislation through the general Qualified Majority Voting procedure will be reduced. The EU will have greater powers in the areas of foreign affairs and cooperation in criminal matters and new powers over, for example, economic coordination, employment policy, public health and public services. As the Labour dominated House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee has said this “reform” Treaty is substantially equivalent to the Constitutional Treaty rejected by the voters in France and Holland.

It is worth reminding ourselves that, if this Treaty is enforced, there will be no need for further major treaties. The EU’s institutions will have all the powers they need to develop a true centralised United States of Europe in which the United Kingdom’s ability to protect its vital interests will be dependent on Gordon Brown’s “red lines” that a Commons Committee is seeking greater clarity about, but which will, in any event, be vulnerable to decisions by the European Court.

I know that the British people are deeply concerned about these developments: so am I. In the referendum thirty years ago, I voted to be part of the European Economic Community. I thought the British economy would benefit from being part of the common market. But things have changed. “Community” has become “Union”. The nature of that union has become ever clearer. It is not that for which I, and many others, voted. Moreover, despite striving for a single market, we have seen Britain too often fail to get a fair deal.

The world has also changed. There is now a global market. Our future, and the rest of Europe’s future, depends on how we do in that global market. Unfortunately, Europe is failing to make a positive contribution to it, particularly with regard the common agriculture policy and the Doha round. And too many of our partners in Europe are stuck in the reactionary mindset of seeking to use the EU as somewhere to hide from the rest of the world. Such negativity is not in our interests.

Too many commentators and politicians have spent too much time denying the inexorable sweep of European integration, claiming that the EU is “going our way” and failing to see that Europe’s present attitude to global trade and competition are bad for all of us. It is time for a positive debate and a popular decision on just what sort of relationship is right for Britain and Europe.

Polling by Global Vision shows that given the option of staying within the EU and participating in, firstly, further integration, secondly, having a looser relationship based on trade and cooperation whilst opting out of political and economic union or, thirdly, withdrawing from the EU, most people prefer the option of having the looser relationship. Polling also shows that businesses, too, prefer a simple trade relationship rather than integration and are tired of the EU’s burdensome regulations.

Government reluctance to give the people the say on the future of Britain and the EU is unsustainable. Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian on 11 October gives their real reason. “Blue funk, in short. I have to say that when I talk privately to pro-European friends, this is almost invariably the clinching argument: "Because we would lose it!" … If pro-Europeans thought they could win a referendum, as in 1975, they would probably go for it. So long as this remains the case, pro-Europeans and Labour ministers resisting a referendum will sound weak, defensive and disingenuous”.

Garton Ash supports the Treaty and is pro “Europe”: but he is right in thinking that it is better for the government to face the issue and try to win popular consent in an open way. I suspect that the people will punish those who deny them a say.

Moreover this is not, as the government likes to portray it, a matter of being pro or anti Europe. As the polls show there is a third way, namely a looser relationship that is pro-European, forward looking and right - not just for Britain but for Europe itself. This should not be difficult, the British people like Europe and wish to maintain a positive, open and modern relationship with Europe.

It is sometimes argued that Europe’s politicians would fight Britain tooth and nail if we sought a different relationship. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of Europe’s politicians would be relieved to see the end of continual argument about “British interests” and “red lines” and the associated political grandstanding. They could then proceed with their desired European political integration without Britain obstructing the process. And Britain and the EU could start negotiating agreements on those issues they genuinely feel they can cooperate on for their mutual benefit. Switzerland and Norway already have this constructive forward-looking relationship and it works. It would work for Britain.

Giscard d’Estaing, grand architect of the Constitution, believes passionately that integration is necessary for the Continent of Europe but understands that the British people are unlikely to be happy with this. He is on record as saying that, if Britain does not want to continue with the “process of integration”, then a “special status” must be offered to Britain which “they must be able to accept”.

It is said that Britain would lose influence in the world if we opted out of economic and political union. Of course, we would have less influence within the EU. But our influence is already quite limited. For all of Britain’s endeavours, Europe has not gone “Britain’s way”. Our ability to block legislation has been considerably diminished through the years. National vetoes have been eroded and Britain’s share of votes in the almost ubiquitous Qualified Majority Voting procedure has shrunk (it is currently 8½ %).

Fundamentally, our global influence is determined by economic and military strength and international respect. As the 5th largest economy, with unique global contacts (including the neglected Commonwealth), our international influence is likely to be enhanced rather than diminished. We would, for example, be free to be a strong free trade voice in international trade rather than be represented by the inward-looking protectionist EU.

This country has a great future whatever happens to the Reform Treaty, but the issue of our relationship with the EU must be grasped. We need a referendum on the Reform Treaty but we also need a decision on the basic course for our country. Do we go deeper into the “European project”, or, with a looser, more modern relationship with Europe, do we focus on the arrangements and institutions that will be needed in the increasingly globalised economy and society of the 21st century?

(23 October 2007)

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