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Simon Clarke: The EU and the challenge of change

Simon_clarke Simon Clarke, an activist in Hammersmith and Fulham and former President of the Oxford University Conservative Association, suggests Eurosceptics should learn from the success of Libertas.

Not so very long ago I distinctly remember a debate on the Daily Telegraph's letters page about travelling in Europe, which prompted a submission from one loyal reader to the effect that he was unconcerned, given that 'I have never left England and never want to'.

Good value for raising a smile over the breakfast coffee. However, this is precisely the sort of material which Gordon Brown thrives on as he lines up cheap gags about the Conservatives' relationship with the EU. No matter what the context, no matter how serious the issue or abuse being discussed, Labour has a stock response: Tories are Little Englanders, out-of-touch, maybe even a little xenophobic. They don't like the EU because they don't like Europeans, and they shouldn't be taken seriously.

Obviously this is nonsense, and the Conservatives are by a distance the most in touch with popular sentiment about Europe of the three main parties. Yet in the round, I have to say that I believe that the party's current European policy is not as ambitious as are other aspects of the developing Cameron blueprint. Our principles on this subject are clear and well-rehearsed. But they are consistently overshadowed by issues ranging from MEPs' expenses to the vexed question as to whether a future Tory government would hold a post-ratification referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and suffer from the absence of a compelling over-arching theme.

With this in mind, the Libertas campaign in the recent Irish referendum was highly instructive. Declan Ganley and his supporters fought very shrewdly on the platform of championing democracy, accountability and transparency in Europe. Their opposition was not to the EU itself, but rather to what it has become, or is in danger of becoming. By adopting this approach, the no-camp comprehensively won the moral high ground in the debate. And it was this that was so crucial to their success, for their actions completely turned the tables on their opponents. For too long unthinking Europhiles, certainly in Britain, have been able to point to the supposed nobility of their cause as its chief justification, painting the EU's critics as those who would throw not only the European dream, but also UK plc's best interests, out with the bathwater. How much harder for them to do so when it is they who have to defend the indefensible, and the reformists who can showcase a positive vision.

This then is the model which I would recommend for Conservative Euroscepticism. The failings of the EU are apparent to all: its venality, protectionist instincts and over-reliance on the dead hand of the state. Yet there have also been significant achievements, the most impressive of which, the instigation of freedom of movement for goods, people and services, is wholly in line with free-market economics. There is moreover the potential for similar accomplishments in regard to global warming, national security and immigration control.

The Conservatives should therefore challenge Europe to change so as to better realise these ambitions, rather than keep allowing Europe to make the same demand of us. For too long the relationship between the UK and the EU has resembled the recent match between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, with the European moving the doughty Brit around the court with ease, prior to winning almost all the crucial points. This has to change. To continue the analogy, Cameron needs to send down some aces of his own. To wit, challenge Brussels to scrap the outdated and immoral CAP, as a prelude to ending our rebate. Or tell Europe that we'll consider a joint foreign policy envoy just as soon as our erstwhile allies contemplate a stance that doesn't rely on the massive subsidisation of our collective security by the USA through NATO, while all the time offering at best scant support to America's attempts to bring security and justice to countries that have not known such blessings for generations.

The Conservatives, in other words, should make it plain that the British are prepared to be good Europeans, provided there is a good Europe to be part of. The perfect mechanism exists for announcing this in the form of the new Movement for European Reform, and this message should be refined and amplified as a return to government becomes more and more likely. By making the case for change in this way, rather than reverting to a string of negatives, the Tories can force Brown onto the defensive, and compel him to justify his party's alignment with the anti-democratic, centralising federalists who currently have control of Europe's destiny. In two years' time, the Cameron-led government which we all hope to see could take this case to the heart of the EU, armed with all the authority which a newly mandated governing party carries with it. It is already clear that the likes of Sarkozy (currently by a distance the most impressive European leader on the world stage) and Merkel are starting to take the Conservatives seriously again, as evidenced by their recent meetings with Cameron. The gauntlet can be flung down both at home and abroad.

And then we'll see who's laughing about Europe, Gordon.


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