Martin Callanan MEP: It's time to get out of bed with Sarkozy!
Martin Callanan, MEP for the North East, wonders what it is that we have in common with Nicholas Sarkozy.
In the most recent article I wrote for ConservativeHome, I began the piece by stating, "Conservatives tend to be free marketeers - or at least British Conservatives do." It was, of course, intended as a bit of a dig against some of our so-called centre-right political allies in Europe, who tend towards a corporatist, interventionist and protectionist worldview. But like all stereotypes, there is more than a grain of truth in this characterisation.
If ever there was any doubt in our minds about the continental conservative ideal, it was blown away in a swift half hour of platitudes by Nicolas Sarkozy this week. Sarko, you may remember, appeared in a video link to last year's party conference and David Cameron recently announced joint working parties with his UMP party. The French president delivered a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Very few MEPs missed it, partly because set-piece speeches by visiting potentates are always scheduled right in the middle of votes and, disappointingly, very few MEPs stayed seated at the end of the speech as the assembled throng rose to give Sarkozy a standing ovation - including some of my Conservative colleagues.
The location was apposite to his cause. Sarkozy could easily have come to Brussels to address the parliament, but he was making a political point by making his way to this isolated town on the Rhine. He said that Strasbourg was "unbreakably linked in the spirit of all Europeans" to the European Parliament. That is a polite way of saying that those of us who campaign to scrap the Strasbourg sittings - saving taxpayers £200 million a year and saving the environment 90,000 tonnes of CO2 a year - are basically wasting our time.
But the most reassuring part of the speech was Sarkozy's defence of protectionism - reassuring in the sense that we now know exactly where he stands on the fundamental question of the EU's economic future. During his election campaign he was widely portrayed as France's answer to Margaret Thatcher, a free market champion who was going to shake France out of its dirigste torpor. On Tuesday, he rapidly shed this cloak of radicalism and adopted the familiar tired rhetoric that we have come to know, if not to love, from the Elysée. Last month, of course, he had a reference to free and unfettered competition summarily removed from the EU reform treaty. It will be interesting to see if his tough image crumbles this week as France is beset by public sector strikes.
The speech was replete with veiled attacks on economic liberalism. He said protectionism should not be a taboo subject in the EU and called for a debate about ways of giving preferential treatment to domestic businesses in trade talks to protect the EU's economy from globalisation - or should that be France's economy? He talked obliquely of 'community preferences' and launched a thinly disguised assault on the City of London and its 'capitalism of speculators'. He flatly rejected the idea of a referendum (including in the UK!) on the new European Constitution, endorsing Gordon Brown's position. At least he can claim a mandate for this view as he did at least state this position clearly in the Presidential election.
Interesting, then, that the Conservative Party is going to be linking up with our French sister party, Sarkozy's UMP, to form study groups. The intention of this exercise is no doubt honourable, and of course it makes sense to be forming strong bonds with like-minded parties that share our agenda, especially on the future of the EU. But Sarkozy's speech - which he delivered in a curiously disinterested way - harked back to the dark, discredited days of the 1970s. If Sarkozy's prescription for the European economy is put into practice, Europe's sick economy may soon become terminally ill. It certainly makes a mockery of the EU's much-vaunted ambition to be the world's most competitive economy within three years.
There seems little to discuss with the UMP. We clearly do not share Sarkozy's agenda of protectionism and state control. It stands in stark contrast to the looser, more flexible and focused EU that David Cameron champions. It could hardly be further removed from the economic liberalism that is traditionally Britain's strength and lies at the heart of our party's philosophy. If we are to team up with other parties across Europe, we should ensure first that we have something, policy wise, in common.