Last month’s European Parliamentary elections could not have been more unambiguous about the frustrations felt by voters in various member states about the relentless slide towards ever-closer union. The tussle over who is to become the next President of the European Commission is fraught with politics and neglects some fairly fundamental questions which have remained unaddressed for an unacceptable length of time.
That’s why I have spoken in favour of the work of Andy Gross, who presented a paper calling for an honest and open debate about the problems facing the EU and the need for a new model of governance. It’s not as if these are a few local difficulties which can be ignored without cost: our continent is beset with unhelpful demographics and a declining economic prospectus for the medium term. I don’t accept all of the conclusions that he reaches, but he is correct to identify the chronic need for a proper debate about where we are going and what is needed to bring that about.
I believe that there is much support across Europe for questioning the call to ever-closer union. We need a new model with stronger nation states. Recent experience has highlighted how impotent ordinary voters are from the ‘Eurocrat’ elite: we need to bring decisions closer to those affected by the consequences. The crisis which has afflicted the single currency has reinforced the need for a strengthening of ‘co-operation’ among those member states within the Euro which would be completely unacceptable to some of us who remain outside.
Why have people deserted the political mainstream in favour of those offering a ten-second soundbite in recent electoral contests across our continent? Well, a poll exploring some of these issues in Britain found that voters feel left behind, ignored. A toxic disconnect has festered between politicians and voters – with the EU and immigration cited as two major causes of their disengagement.
The Council of Europe, on whose Parliamentary Assembly I sit, does much good work – but is below the radar of most voters. It seems quite possible that a candidate completely unacceptable to the United Kingdom will assume the highest seat in the Brussels bureaucracy within a very short period of time, and that, if nothing else, might focus attention here on what the Government will do to bring about the successful negotiations that the Prime Minister has promised for after next year’s general election.
But I believe that we need to do more. Should Jean-Claude Juncker succeed in his bid to become the President of the Commission, the push for ever-closer union will not be reversed: rather, their ambitions will carry on regardless. Ignoring the expressed wish of the combined electorates can only serve to increase the attraction of those marginal political forces who depend upon reactionary commentary instead of credible argument. We need a far more convincing narrative to counter their simplistic assertions: in essence, ministers must use the period before the general election to paint the picture of what a Conservative vision of Europe would look, feel and smell like.
I believe that voters in Britain will embrace a more flexible and responsive collaboration with our European partners. We need to clarify our vision, and sell it hard at home and abroad. People across Europe will not be ignored for much longer, and we must be the champions of the alternative which has yet to gain genuine traction in Brussels. Give us the tools, Prime Minister, and we’re ready to start winning that case for our continent.