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Lorraine Mullally: The Conservatives must do better than Labour at representing Britain's interests in Europe

Lorraine Mullally Lorraine Mullally is outgoing Director of Open Europe

2009 has been a disappointing year for anyone who cares about democracy in Europe.  It will go down in history as the year the political elite finally won the battle against the people to enforce the undemocratic EU Constitutional Treaty without their consent, or, in the case of Ireland, by bulldozing their original decision to reject it.

That said, it’s hardly been the best year for EU integrationists either. Turnout at the European elections hit a record low, and there was widespread public dismay at the secrecy in which EU leaders appointed an unknown Belgian federalist to be President of Europe.

The really bad news for the people so desperate to pass the Treaty is that since it is now in force, there will be countless new examples of just how out of touch and undemocratic the EU has become. As the EU flexes its new muscles, millions of people across Europe will gradually realise they have less and less say over the issues which affect their lives, and their scepticism and frustration will only grow.

Because make no mistake, the loss of powers to the EU does not end with the Lisbon Treaty. On the contrary, federalist leaders think they’ve been given a green light to go full steam ahead to political union. 

Take the agenda of the upcoming ‘trio’ of EU ‘presidencies’, beginning with Spain in January 2010.  It says:

“The task ahead of us is to build a more united and a more integrated Europe.”

The Socialist Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Zapatero, says:

“Europe has been and continues to be a successful project… But we are not satisfied; we want more. We want to build a stronger Europe, more united.” 

He is particularly keen on building “a social union”.  He said: “In short, we want the European Union to be a factory of rights”.  The idea is to get busy with the Charter of Fundamental rights, which he describes as “a huge step towards the consolidation of the Union as what it really is: not just an economic union, but also a political and social union.”

All this should ring alarm bells at Westminster. David Cameron has promised to tackle EU social and employment policy, and to negotiate an opt-out from the Charter. Many people have argued that he shouldn’t waste his time and political capital on EU social policy because there are no new rules in the pipeline, but Zapatero’s talk of turning the EU into a “factory of rights” shows they are clearly wrong. 

It is now more important than ever that the next British government prioritises radical reform.  EU social policy is going to cost the UK £71 billion over the next decade as it is, even without the additional new laws Zapatero has up his sleeve.  Debt-ridden Britain simply can’t afford it.

As we at Open Europe have argued here before, the only way to stop these laws from affecting Britain is to negotiate a comprehensive opt-out from all the Treaty articles giving rise to social and employment legislation.  David Cameron must make a clear manifesto pledge with these very words.

Otherwise, he risks following in Labour’s doomed footsteps.  Because the appalling failure to hold the promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is not the only manifesto commitment on Europe that Labour has casually brushed aside.

Labour said they would “be leaders in a reformed Europe”, but gave away £7 billion of Britain’s rebate in return for a badly-needed “review” of the CAP, which in the end was effectively shelved.

They failed to “bear down on regulation”, allowing the annual cost of regulations introduced in the past decade to rise by 74% between 2005 and 2008, with 72% of the cost coming from EU legislation. They made a complete mess of negotiations on the Agency Workers’ Directive, promising and failing to secure a permanent opt-out from the EU’s 48-hour working week in return for accepting the Directive. They failed to make lasting progress on the Doha Development Round, as talks collapsed under Peter Mandelson as EU Trade Commissioner.

And Labour has been asleep at the wheel in terms of EU financial services regulation – with the City now under serious threat from several proposed new EU rules. 

2010 will be a tough year for a likely new Conservative government, but with some concrete new commitments it could still be an improvement on 2009 where Europe is concerned.  With the top 100 existing EU regulations set to cost the UK economy £18.7 billion in 2010 alone, the Tories must go much further than Labour’s vague promises about “reforming Europe”.  Voters can recognise fence-sitting when they see it.


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