Our relationship with Europe

Last week the Prime Minister’s speech on Europe provoked much debate in the media. Did it define a historic turning point – or was it just a distraction from the misery of recession?

As a student at Oxford, back in 1975, I campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in Harold Wilson’s referendum on the Common Market. In a world of trade blocks this represented the best chance for Britain to be part of a large, free trade area. I was, however, along with a great many others, guilty of not reading the small print. In fact, hardly anyone took that bit about ‘ever closer union’ seriously – but it was there in the Treaty of Rome all along.

Since then three things have happened to the EU; first it has stifled its member states with expensive and cumbersome bureaucracy. This has been worst for small businesses, normally the main providers of new jobs. In other parts of the world – including America, China and India – growth has been rapid, unfettered by this bureaucracy.

Second, most of the EU has joined a single currency, with catastrophic results for Southern Europe. More than half the young people in Spain, Greece and Cyprus are now unemployed.

But third, in the meantime, new international treaties have come into force, policed by the World Trade Organisation, underpinning free trade for most goods, inside and outside the EU – so the original purpose of joining now looks less important.

As David Cameron put it: in a highly competitive world ‘…the EU must be able to act with the flexibility of a network, not the cumbersome rigidity of a bloc.’ The current stifling regime in Brussels is pulling Europe further and further down the competitive league table and, across Europe, people are paying the price – unemployment, high taxation, falling living standards – and shrinking amounts of money available for public services.

David Cameron will try to persuade the EU to reform, but he only has a real chance of success if our partners believe we are willing to leave. Under the last government, we campaigned for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty but, by the time of the election, it was too late – short of leaving the EU, we had no way of unpicking the deal. This time we are committed to putting David Cameron’s deal to a referendum and, if we don’t like the deal, we can all vote to leave.

Yes, I believe this is a historic turning point.

Published in the Whitstable Times on 31st January 2013.