Robert Buckland MP: In Europe, Britain is taking its place at the head of the table
In recent weeks, there has been a lot to quietly celebrate about the positive steps that we have been making in matters EU. Britain has helped to negotiate the first ever real terms cut in the EU budget; our MEPs have junked the repulsive ‘discards’ practise and restored national control to fisheries management; and, finally, we are leading the charge to reform the EU so that the twin aims of enhancing trade and completing the single market are met. At home, the announcement by the Prime Minister of a referendum on our future membership of the EU has allowed the debate to move from one of process to one that is concerned with the merits of our continued membership.
In the minds of many critics, it is fair to say that, only a few months ago, all of the above seemed literally fantastic. The controversial Common Fisheries Policy seemed to be part of the EU furniture, ugly but immovable. The EU budget had a sense of the inevitable to it, rising every time without regard to the economic reality in member states. Meaningful talks about streamlining the EU and issues such as free trade with the rest of the world seemed to be very far down the agenda. The domestic debate about the EU was dominated by those who believe that our membership is a problem. All of this is changing.
One of the problems that has concerned me about our attitude to the EU is a sense that, at home, there has been a lack of self-belief when it comes to our role and influence in Europe. For too long, the perception has been that British representatives walk into the institutions of the EU and leave days later, dazed and mugged of their possessions. In fact, there is nothing to fear about being in the EU. Time and time again, we have been remarkably successful at securing our national interest within the EU, with recent events serving to reiterate this point.
Britain’s influence in the EU was a key reason why David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech received an encouraging response in many quarters. Chancellor Merkel of Germany has some sympathy with our reformist aims; without her support, the budget cut would not have been achieved. She realises that the EU must be more efficient and competitive. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, shares our desire to see some powers repatriated to the Member States. He knows that empowered Nation States are integral to the legitimacy of the EU. Alexander Stubb, Foreign Minister of Finland, recognises that there has already been a lot of differentiation within the EU. He understands that an identikit EU is not the be-all and end-all to the European project.
Other recent events have also helped to remind us of the importance of the EU to us. President Obama’s reference in his State of the Union speech to the need for an EU-USA free trade agreement (FTA) was significant. A proper agreement could help to boost annual GDP growth in the EU by 0.5% and would follow hot on the heels of the South Korea-EU FTA. On another note, the growing horsemeat scandal is a European-wide problem in search of a European-wide solution. As Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: "It's increasingly clear the case reaches right across Europe. Europol is the right organisation to co-ordinate efforts to uncover all wrongdoing and bring criminals to justice".
It is not easy to get our way in Europe; it never is when you are dealing with twenty-six other Member States. It requires expertise, dedication and sometimes just a bit of luck. However, it can be done. David Cameron’s sterling effort in Brussels, backed up by relentless and sustained work from Europe Minister David Lidington and his officials prior to the European Council, secured a tidy 3% reduction on the previous budget proposals, when the European Commission had asked for a 5% increase. This is what can happen when we roll up our sleeves and engage in the cut and thrust of the debate, haggling line-by-line with our partners.
History has surely taught us that we must stay at the heart of Europe precisely so that we can reform it. Whether we like it or not, our fortunes are intricately linked with those of the continent. Instead of shouting from the sidelines, Britain is taking its place again at the head of the table, helping the EU to face up to its many problems. Offering constructive criticism and robust challenge where necessary is the hallmark of a true friendship with our EU partners. I for one am very glad that the Government are doing just that.