It’s not hard to find people utterly fed up of the European Union. Indeed, they’re a growing bunch. Our non-removable elite in Brussels are advancing their vision of ever-closer Union, mindless of the difficulties and tensions which this onward march creates, and blithe to the demographics changes which works against us all in the continent.
Recent surveys show more strongly than ever the feeling amongst businesses and households that the current arrangements are bad for our country’s future. I have been swayed by the evidence, and am hungry to see us secure a different relationship which better reflects our interests. To a lesser extent, the Prime Minister has travelled part of that journey, and the Government is committed to negotiating different terms for our engagement with our continental partners. But I am clear: the status quo is unacceptable and needs to be changed – withdrawal would be better than continuing along the path to more aggressive integration, but may not be as desirable as a changed relationship.
The issue can only get more attention as we get closer to the discussions which the Prime Minister has undertaken to advance. An early focus will be next year’s European Parliamentary elections, and the main choice will be between those who want something different, and those who seek to withdraw altogether. The Prime Minister has made clear that he prefers the former, and, subject to what that vision contains, I believe that he speaks for the overwhelming majority of public and business opinion in this country.
So we need to know more about what the Prime Minister’s vision entails – what would the Government’s preferred future relationship between Britain and the European Union look like? I recognise that, as with any business negotiation, the details will not be shared openly in its entirety in advance of the conclusion of the negotiations, but the canvas is frustratingly sparse at present. Many of us are firmly of the view that withdrawal would be preferable to the current direction of travel. So what is contained within the Prime Minister’s preferred vision is of paramount importance to those of us sceptical of what Europe has become who are eager to find an alternative, and for those contemplating how to vote in next year’s contest.
I wonder whether the mandarins at the Foreign Office are presenting numerous obstacles to allowing us any glimpse of what that relationship might be. It is certainly the case that there will be resistance from the corps of Europhiles who occupy senior diplomatic posts related to Europe policy. They will be dragged into these negotiations kicking and screaming, I’m sure, but that is where ministerial accountability and democratic government comes into its own.
In welcoming the involvement of bodies such as ‘Business for Britain’, whose manifesto is expected to achieve widespread support among businesses and politicians, I hope that the Government will lead the charge for the different vision we have been promised. The various coalitions and pressure groups who support the Prime Minister’s concept of a change are ready to make the case, whilst doing much of the thinking and analysis necessary, and engage the public to ensure the vital electoral mandate.
My prime anxiety is that the absence of clarity from the Government could surrender the debate to those who either seek to defend the status quo, or appear motivated by an irrational antipathy towards any form of interaction with our European partners. We need William Hague to flesh out some detail – and in time to allow us to dominate the debate in advance of next year’s European elections.
As a starter for ten, I want the Government to challenge the soft commentary put forward about the European Single Market. This construct has very little to do with trade, and a great deal to do with the harmonisation of a burdensome regulatory environment – interfering in areas which should be a matter for individual democratic states to determine for themselves. A limited inquiry into what the Single Market actually is demonstrates that it is harmful to our interests, and largely irrelevant to our trade relationships with our European partners. I believe that we could absent ourselves from the European Single Market to our substantial advantage, and without major cost. I’d like to see the Government articulate that ambition as part of their strategy.
Without doubt, the Prime Minister’s approach enjoys the warm support of a very substantial part of the country. He has managed to harness the active interest of a growing body of opinion who share his belief that we can arrange things better with our European partners – whose vision of ever-closer union is not shared by people in Britain. Momentum is on the side of an alternative approach, and the Government should be ready to lead the charge.
So come on, William, seize the opportunity: we may have had twenty-four hours to save the pound, but we have less than a year to share some insight about just how a Conservative approach to Europe will be superior to the alternatives. It’s time to share some of that vision – and we must deliver it to win.