Last November Europe celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The contrast between Europe then and now demonstrates what the EU has accomplished in the intervening years. Despite the present economic crisis, Europe has never been freer, more stable and more prosperous, and the European Union deserves considerable credit for that.
The EU is an institution of enormous importance to the United Kingdom and to British foreign policy. And although the Conservative Party has seldom shied away from frank criticism when we have thought the EU has collectively been getting things wrong, we have equally been the foremost champions of the EU’s greatest achievements – the single market and enlargement.
Yet, as is widely recognised, this is No time for the EU to rest on its laurels. Today, its member states need to work together on the new issues we face in the 21st century ; combating climate change, fighting global poverty and securing our energy supplies.
Our common economic future poses a fundamental challenge. Europe’s share of the world’s GDP is set to shrink and the world does not owe us a living. With the rise of new economic powers in many industries, Europe has already lost its cost advantage. If we also lose our knowledge advantage our future could be very bleak. Herman Van Rompuy has accurately said, ‘we need more economic growth, now and in the future’ and has rightly identified competitiveness as a key issue.
The Europe 2020 Strategy has an important role here. We need it to focus tightly and realistically on the areas where European action can add value. As was set out in the European Conservatives and Reformists Group’s submission on the new competitiveness strategy, the EU’s internal market needs to evolve further. This means completion of the single market in goods and services, better enforcement of single market rules and full advantage taken of the opportunities offered by e-commerce. Innovation is almost universally understood to be crucial to our economic future, but our economies are being held back by fragmented licensing and copyright regimes. The EU also needs to cherish its successes, so we must ensure that EU legislation does not add to the costs of businesses or drive our enterprises out of the EU.
Just as the Conservativeled government in the UK will be active in all these areas of internal EU policy, so will we be energetically involved from the outset in the EU’s external policy challenges.
The Conservative Party remains firmly convinced of the merits of further EU enlargement. The prospect of membership is crucial in entrenching stability in the western Balkans, where so much European blood has already been shed. The western Balkans are the backyard of the EU, and its credibility in foreign affairs depends on the effectiveness of its policy there. In Bosnia in particular, there is a need for a more muscular and demanding European policy which should be capable of using sticks as well as carrots. There is a strong argument for the threat of targeted sanctions against politicians who undermine the Bosnian state. Bosnia’s economy has grown with foreign aid, but the state has not grown, and today it does not work. The consequences of Bosnia’s disintegration would be catastrophic. The breakdown of the country into independent ethnic statelets would not only reward ethnic cleansing – surely a moral anathema – but would also risk the creation of a failed state in the heart of Europe. A robust approach should focus on a single goal : a central government in Bosnia effective enough to meet the responsibilities of both EU and NATO membership. Success in attaining that aim would be proof to the world of the EU’s seriousness as a regional actor.
The case for Turkey’s accession to the EU is as strong as ever. As well as offering considerable mutual economic benefits and profoundly strengthening the EU’s security of energy supply, Turkey’s membership would refute those who claim that there is a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam, and would make Turkey an ideal interlocutor between Europe and the Middle East.
The UK’s new Conservative-led government intends to play a leading role in discussion of the European Union’s external affairs. While we conservatives have taken a particular view on the utility and purpose of the EU’s institutional structures, we have always argued that it is in the common interests of the nations of Europe that we should use our collective weight in the world to mutual advantage and to promote our shared values. We have consistently argued that EU member states have not shown enough determination and consistency in delivering on foreign policy goals. This Conservative-led government will be a strong advocate of the European Union’s collective demonstration of those qualities.
The European Union needs to show unity and purpose in its relations with Russia, where a balanced and constructive partnership would be desirable. And the EU should also prove that we Europeans have the political will to deliver the appropriate response to the Iranian Government’s stance on nuclear proliferation.
The EU’s new External Action Service is going to have considerable bearing on the future success of Europe’s global role. It is true that we in the Conservative Party were not persuaded of the case for the new EEAS as a service, but its existence is now a fact. Part of our critique of the Lisbon treaty was that rather than making the EU more streamlined and efficient, its new arrangement of the EU’s structures held the potential for inter-institutional confusion and discord. Nevertheless, we now look to the smoothest possible establishment of a service that must play a positive role for the EU and have the confidence of its member states. Britain’s Conservative government will work closely with the High Representative, whom we wish well.
The new Conservative-led government will also deal with the issues raised by the Lisbon treaty’s ratification. British voters were denied any say over the treaty, either at a general election or in a referendum and in breach of the last government’s election manifesto commitments. That denial has done grave damage in Britain to the European Union’s democratic legitimacy, and that legitimacy is now profoundly in need of repair.
In a speech last November, David Cameron set out how we intend to do that, by domestic measures to make the EU more accountable and by negotiating for specific British guarantees on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the operation of the EU’s competence in criminal justice and on social and employment legislation. We have been very clear that the purpose of these measures is not to frustrate or sabotage the operation of the European Union but to put Britain’s role in the EU on a more positive footing. We will take our time, negotiating firmly, patiently and respectfully, and aim to achieve these guarantees over the lifetime of our newly-elected parliament.
It is right that we should establish the principle that European integration is not a one-way street, so that powers can be returned from the EU to its member states, as was envisaged in the Laeken Declaration nearly a decade ago. Such a move would do a very great deal to reassure people that the European Union can be responsive to people’s concerns and that it need not interfere in the nooks and crannies of national life. By ceasing to act where European action is not needed, it would highlight the case for EU action where it is needed. It is, after all, very hard to argue that the hours that medical doctors work is something that has to be regulated at the European level. In fact, such regulation discredits the EU when it creates serious problems for public services, as it has by damaging patient care in Britain.
With the countries of the EU facing important challenges on deciding where co-operation at European level provides such added value, it is crucially important that the EU should focus on today’s priorities and dispense with activities best left to the member states. This sort of approach would actually help build the public support that the EU’s institutions will need if they are to achieve their potential. And because a forward-looking and flexible Europe is in every member states’ interests, this Conservative-led government will engaged fully with our partners from day one to advance that cause.