As Eurozone heads of state gather in Brussels, Lewis James Brown, Web 2.0 Manager at the Centre for Policy Studies, takes a look at recent calls for 'mainstream Euroscepticism' to reform the EU.
Many of you will have read with admiration the letter sent by 14 Members of the new intake outlining their vision for a ‘mainstream Euroscepticism’, calling for a middle ground between the frustrating acquiescence of the Coalition Government and the stubborn anti-European Union attitude of Conservative backbenchers. One of those signatories, George Eustice MP, has also authored a much-praised piece for ConHome calling on Conservative Eurosceptics to ditch their ‘weariness’ and have one last push at the necessary reforms to the Union.
I joined the Conservative Party at the age of 16 under William Hague for a variety of reasons but chief amongst them was a desire to see Britain retain the Pound and not, as Tony Blair had wanted, sign up to the European single currency. Time has vindicated the arguments of Hague and, yes, Gordon Brown as we have seen the Euro erode the foundations of sovereignty on the continent and then plunge into its recent crisis.
As a college student I can remember impassioned arguments against my family, fellow students and others not particularly politically-inclined that Britain needed to follow the Hague mantra of “in Europe, not run by Europe”, that the EU was an unfit organisation in need of reform but that we were far better off enjoying the benefits of trade and influence it brought us. The problem was, there was never anyone who agreed with me. Those disinterested in the Party politics of Westminster are overwhelmingly united in a hatred of the European Union, something Hugh Grant summed up with his “it’s just so depressing” answer on Question Time (his most interesting contribution I thought).
What’s more, this layman anti-EU stance can simply no longer be brushed off by the political class as the uneducated opinions of the populist mob – a recent survey has shown that supporters of all three main parties hold the Union in similarly low-regard.
Amongst so many who once believed in the case for EU reform, that ‘weariness’ cannot be shed. There have been calls for reform for too long, the size and power of the current organisation grown too large for serious changes to restore the sovereignty of nation-states and their parliaments. There is a single currency, an EU President, motions for a permanent European army. Despite many references to Churchill originating the idea of a union of European nations, there can be no doubt this is an organisation set up by Federalists, for Federalists, to achieve Federalism. It has shown time and time again it is unable and unwilling to consider root-and-branch reform.
The Conservatives have been on the back foot on various issues as of late but on very few issues can they claim to dominate the electorate like Europe. The last three European elections (1999, 2004, 2009) have been givens for the Party despite two of these coming under the most popular Labour Prime Minister of all time. However, the Party – now in a Government constantly tested by EU directives and dictates, in a coalition with the Europhile Lib Dems – faces a serious threat in 2014 in the form of the last election’s runners-up, UKIP. In opposition, the electorate has made do with the Conservative vision of Euroscepticism, in Government it will not be so kind. In the next election, UKIP have the real possibility of outflanking the Conservatives to become the mainstream’s representatives on Europe and reflecting this mood of depression and weariness. They will benefit from a Labour opposition still struggling to shed the memory of economic crisis and pro-European policies.
If UKIP won the European Parliamentary election, they could then legitimately call for a place in the following year’s leadership debates, and even dispute insistences that Parliamentary reform is dead for a generation with the evidence of a party topping a national poll having no chance of representation in Parliament.
As Prime Minister, David Cameron has much to be proud of including fighting against the EU budget increase; ensuring Britain does not contribute directly to Eurozone bailouts; and the referendum lock. Despite my pessimism, I still retain a belief that Britain is better off as a member of a reformed EU that respects the sovereignty of the nation-state and is more effective while doing (and taking) less.
Still, I cannot shake my weariness that we will ever get there, and if we don’t the electorate that has been with the Party on this issue since 1999 will surely punish the Government. In view of this, I believe in the run-up to 2014 the Conservative Party’s message to Brussels should be clear – the EU must accept the need for real reform of the entire Union, or we offer an in-out referendum in the next Parliament. I have no doubt which option the electorate would choose.