Dr Liam Fox MP: The Prime Minister's speech must end the concept of 'ever closer union'
Dr Liam Fox is Conservative MP for North Somerset. Follow Liam on Twitter.
The Prime Minister’s speech in Amsterdam will be one of the most important of his political career. It will be an opportunity to redefine the terms of a debate that has divided opinion inside and outside the Conservative Party. It must be clear, consistent and courageous.
There are a number of things I would like to hear. First and foremost we need an unambiguous declaration that we cannot continue to support the concept of “ever closer union”. It is both the essence and interpretation of this that lies at the heart of the strains between Britain, especially the Conservative Party, and our European partners.
First, the British people voted, or believed they voted, for a common market in the 1975 referendum. Yet what was delivered was the ‘ever closer union’ contained in the preamble to the Treaty of Rome by increment. Treaty by treaty the EU has become more and more entwined with areas of our national life, largely uninvited, and all the while successive British Governments have told us that we are ‘winning the arguments in Europe’ or that ‘Europe is coming our way’. To break with this consensus, which has bedevilled Britain’s relationship with Europe since the 1970’s, would be a landmark moment for the Prime Minister, the Conservative Party – and more importantly still – the British public. As I said on 19th December in a speech at RUSI in conjunction with Open Europe, ‘Back to a Common Market’ would be an ideal slogan for the Conservative Party at the 2015 general election.
So, if we are to genuinely renounce the concept of ‘ever closer union’, I believe this leaves us with three options. The first is to retain the current relationship we have and veto any future treaty changes. It is hard to see how this would help Britain diplomatically and I, for one, would not put my trust in any future government containing either Labour or Liberal Democrats to honour such a course of action even if it were endorsed by the British people. This option is a non-starter.
The second option is a genuine renegotiation with the intent of remaining in a single market and customs union but without the excessive interference in our national life that the burden of EU bureaucracy, law and regulation have brought us. There will be those who will say that this is too difficult and therefore we should not attempt it - we should ignore them. There will always be those who lack the national self confidence to put forward a genuinely alternative view to the conventional wisdom of the Brussels bureaucracy.
We should be clear about the benefits we see to the whole of Europe of a less rigid approach and try to bring others with us.
If we act decisively in what we believe to be our national interest, even if that is a thorny route to take, it will go a long way to restoring the British public’s faith in the integrity of our political system. At the conclusion of any process of renegotiation we must give the British people the choice whether to remain in the European Union on these terms or leave and pursue a new course for our country.
Any referendum should be a clear in-out choice based on the renegotiations and their outcome.
Of course, there will always be those who are completely irreconcilable with the concept of EU membership itself and who will want to take the third option, to leave the EU, irrespective of the deal on offer. For most of us this would be a course of action which we would take reluctantly, but without fear, only if we could not achieve a new, more open and flexible EU relationship.
I believe that the vast majority of Conservatives, reflecting a growing consensus among the British people themselves, would opt for a clear and unambiguous partnership based upon trade and political cooperation at a time when the global economy is becoming increasingly competitive and where the cost of EU institutions and regulations are slowly becoming the noose around the neck of economic recovery.
Ending the concept of ‘ever closer union’ by negotiating a new agreement - on the basis is that it will settle the European question in Britain for a generation with a clear in/out referendum choice for the British people based on re-negotiation - is what many of us hope we will hear from the Prime Minister tomorrow. I believe it would forge an even greater consensus in our party and in our country, where for the first time official policy on Europe will actually mirror what the people of Britain really think.
Clarity, courage and conviction will be needed and the road will not be easy, but the rewards could be truly historic.