I was starting to think that we might never get to hear David Cameron’s big speech on Europe. Every time we got close there seemed to be another interminable delay and a fresh reason why it wasn’t quite the right time. And with each delay, the frustration within his party increased. But I’m delighted that the PM has at last decided to grasp the nettle because it means now that we can finally get on with something other than “banging on about Europe”! The speech seems initially to have soothed many of the frustrated voices from his backbenches – and so it should. It contained a great deal to satisfy the worried Eurosceptics like myself who are concerned by our relationship with the EU. He was bold and decisive and the flurry of supportive tweets and quotes showed that the Party responded well to his display of leadership.
The main talking point is the promise for an in/out referendum after the next election. Personally, I’m still of the view that it would be preferable to have a referendum now so that we can enter negotiations on the back of a real mandate for change from the British people, rather than the slightly muddled version of asking people their opinion after the event. But still, the commitment to a referendum of any sort at least now puts pressure on Messrs Clegg and Miliband to respond. And, given that they’re both seemingly intent on denying the populace any say on Europe, that gives us back the initiative on the issue.
One serious point of contention I have is with the timescale that Mr Cameron has set for the process of re-negotiation, with the referendum not scheduled until at least 2017. It’s all very well to want to take things steady – these are, after all, fairly seismic shifts being proposed – but I worry that he hasn’t taken into consideration what happens if we’re forced to take action earlier than anticipated. Put simply, the Euro is fracturing and those responsible for it continue to do no more than paper over the cracks. Unless we see real fiscal changes implemented soon there’s only one way it can go. And what happens when this broken currency necessitates earlier negotiations than the schedule currently provides for? If there’s a need for a fiscal re-defining of Europe in 2014 then we need to have our contingencies ready. We have to be prepared to adapt if the pace changes and I’d like to have seen the PM anticipating that and setting out a plan.
Make no mistake about how fragile the Euro is. We’ve reached a surreal sort of state where the currency which is supposed to be serving the EU is instead being propped up by it. It was inevitable, really. The Euro was created and imposed for political reasons, not economic ones. The project was, from inception, an exercise in driving Europe towards integration – that “ever closer union” specified in the European Treaty – regardless of rational economic concerns. And that short-sighted arrogance is now responsible for most of the hardship that countries like Greece and Spain are having to endure. In that regard, David Cameron was bang on in describing how the British approach differs to the rest of Europe. He said: “For us, the European Union is a means to an end – prosperity, stability, the anchor of freedom and democracy both within Europe and beyond her shores – not an end in itself.” I couldn’t agree more, but if the Euro continues as it has been then we need to be prepared to fight for those principles sooner, if necessary, than we might hope.
The other area in which I would urge caution on the Prime Minister is in his enthusiasm for the Single Market, which seemed to be the cornerstone of his speech. He was, of course, right when he said that the Single Market must be at the core of the EU. And he was absolutely right in saying that the Market as it is currently is suffering from a severe crisis of a lack of competitiveness and flexibility. I would love to see the changes in these areas that Mr Cameron proposed, specifically the exemption of entrepreneurial businesses from EU Directives and an abandonment of the one-size-fits-all mentality that emanates from Brussels. But I wonder if he realises just how much he’s bitten off. These are major changes for an inwards-looking institution that has been embroiled in red tape and bureaucracy almost since its inception. I just hope the Prime Minister doesn’t stake too much on something that may prove impossible, ultimately, to implement. Besides, as much as he’s right to want to streamline the Single Market, I’d like to see an even greater emphasis on looking outside Europe for trade and business. We need to be forging links with the BRICS and the Commonwealth countries. If the EU won’t let us move quickly in that direction then that’s something he needs to address.
But despite my concerns I’m pleased that we finally have something on Europe that the Party can get behind. There was much to take heart from in the PM’s big speech and if he remains as forthright and consistent in the coming years as he was for the duration of today’s address then he’ll start to win back the many Conservatives who find themselves drifting towards UKIP. The speech may have been a long time coming but it was worth the wait.