There is a debate in Europe. It is about what kind of European Union we want. This debate has been intensified by the European Constitution 'no' votes in France and the Netherlands and has left the advocates of integration in an arguably weaker political position than ever before. The referendum results have opened up a previously closed and arcane concordat among the élite of Europe. Previously, the only question asked in the corridors of power in Brussels was "How can we speed up the integration process?". Today, the question is a much broader one about the institutional, political, economic and social future of the European Union. I welcome this as a golden opportunity for like-minded organisations to work together on an alternative agenda for the EU.
The debate we have become used to is 'In' or 'Out' of the EU. This debate is outdated and intellectually dishonest. For the vast majority of mainstream political parties in the EU, membership of the EU is a given. However, this in no way precludes a fierce debate on the kind of EU we want to see, and the peoples of France and the Netherlands have given us the chance to frame this debate.
British Conservatives have long advocated reform in, and of, the EU. Many of us became disillusioned that the cosy political consensus on European union among governments would always be an obstacle to the kind of reform we want to see. Today, I am genuinely more optimistic that reform can be achieved and along the lines many on the Centre-Right who think like us want. There are, of course, defeatists who see things in black and white terms. Their analysis is that the EU is so stuck in a political culture which peaked in the 1950s with the founding fathers, that turning it around is a task of such Herculean proportions it is mad even to contemplate it. I disagree.
The politics of the EU is in flux. The European 'project' whether it be the political integration process or the so-called European Social Model is facing its biggest crisis for many years. Many leading pro-European figures accept that the Union is in danger of losing its way. Many more fear that the historical raison d'être of the organisation is under attack as never before.
It is against this backdrop that European reformists like British Conservatives should take heart. There has never been a better time for us and those who think like us to construct and develop a reform strategy for the EU. We want a successful European Union and understand that unless it is reformed, its future could be bleak. We want a successful single market, rising prosperity, greater competitiveness, effective co-operation on justice and security issues, good co-operation on improving environmental standards and a strong partnership with the United States. The EU is capable of providing an inter-governmental forum for these important objectives to be advanced to the mutual benefit of all our peoples. However, some basic reforms to the way the EU thinks and operates will be required as we develop ideas of policy reform. I offer here some suggestions on the kind of agenda the MER and its supporters should consider as priorities in the years ahead.
First, we should advocate real change in the political culture of the Union. The inevitability of integration needs to be challenged, and the French and Dutch have pointed the way in this respect. As pluralists, we cannot accept the argument that there is only one political path for the EU. Such thinking undermines the political process. For the sake of democratic accountability, we have a duty to offer a different path to the integrationist mindset. And, we will not accept the charge that we are wreckers or obstructionists. Those who reach for this weapon to attack us betray their own lack of self-confidence in the vision they seek to advance.
Second, we should be at the forefront of advancing the case for profound economic reform in Europe. Those who believe in the power of free markets and liberalization to generate prosperity and new jobs have history on their side. It is dynamic free market policies such as those at the heart of the Thatcher revolution in Britain and now the driving force of the high growth rates in the new Member States which Europe now needs. The slow growth and increasing uncompetitive nature of European industry and business are symptoms of an outdated Social Model. Those who defend the European social model with its high labour costs, inflexible labour markets and increasingly unsustainable welfare commitments are mortgaging the future of millions of our fellow citizens. We should not tolerate the kind of high level of unemployment which has become seemingly endemic in large parts of the continent. There is nothing 'social' in a social model which consigns millions to perpetual joblessness and relative poverty.
It is true that the EU is not the sole cause of Europe's relative economic decline. The EU can assist the process through improvements in the micro-economic sphere, not least in pursuing a more rigorous deregulation agenda. Member States have most of the macro-economic tools in their own hands to achieve reform but too many have displayed a singular lack of courage in tackling the root causes of economic stagnation. It can be done. The UK showed the way in the 1980s and the Aznar Government in Spain in the 1990s did likewise. However, reformists have a duty to shift the parameters of the debate at a European level.
Third, there needs to be a reformist agenda on the spending of the EU. The budget is enormous and needs to be curbed. The budget priorities need to be fundamentally altered. It is simply ludicrous to have 40% of the budget devoted to agricultural subsidies. There is already a basis for reformists to drive forward their agenda. For example, Conservative MEPs have been at the forefront of demanding proper cost-benefit analyses of legislative proposals. And, yes, there has been a small but welcome shift towards spending on more sensible priorities such as research and development since the Barroso Commission took office, but there remains much to be done to re-configure the budget in ways that reflect the aspirations of a modern, dynamic economy. The 2008 Review of the EU budget is an ideal opportunity to develop our thinking on its scope and priorities and we need to contribute fully to this process. Similarly, there is also a need to restore public confidence in the budgetary processes themselves after years of concern over fraud, waste and mismanagement and reform of the financial systems is urgently required.
Fourth, we should seek a transformation in the nature of the European institutions and their relationship with the citizen. The nation state is being weakened by what has seemed to many of us a relentless drive towards a tighter and tighter political union that undermines the freedom of action of elected governments. Even with the demise of the Constitution, voices continue to be heard promoting the need to harmonise policy in vitally sensitive areas such as justice issues, immigration and security. We should revisit the Laeken Declaration published at the outset of the Convention on the Future of Europe. It talked about the need for the institutions of Europe to become more transparent, accountable and effective. Transparency and openness, together with clearly defined limits on EU competence should be an integral part of what reformists argue for.
Reform is not, of course, an end in itself. The objective of developing a truly reformist agenda must be to change fundamentally the ethos, culture, institutions and policies of the European Union. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Europe is in flux. And there is a paradox at work. Support for the EU in many of the long-standing Member States is at record lows, yet many other nations are either candidates for membership or have long-term ambitions to join. So, the Union has its attractions despite its manifest failings. Many aspiring members see the EU as a beacon of stability in an increasingly uncertain world as well as a zone of economic opportunity. In many respects, they are right. Yet, as the new Member States discovered earlier this year on the issue of the Services Directive, too many in the EU remain hesitant about liberalizing economic activity, an attitude which is demonstrably detrimental to their economic aspirations.
To be successful in winning the debate on Europe's future, reformers must articulate their agenda in a positive way. It is no use carping from the sidelines. We need to be in the thick of the debate; indeed we should be framing the terms of the debate. There is an intellectual vacuum in the European political discourse that reformers can fill. The prize to be grasped for those of us who believe in membership of the EU but are frustrated by the relentless drive towards one particular model of European construction, is a Union that is capable of harnessing diversity as a strength. This will become increasingly vital as the EU continues to enlarge. Too often, those of us who believe in a Europe of Nation States fall victim to the charge that we have no positive alternative to offer. Together, the work I and my Conservative MEP colleagues are taking forward on reform in the European Parliament - and the birth of the Movement for European Reform - gives us the opportunity to demonstrate that there is another way.