Speech by Jonathan Evans MEP, Leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, to the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth
This last year has been a tough one for all political parties. It has shown that there are no easy elections any more, for any of us.
We have had some disappointing by-elections in recent months. But only a few thousand people vote in by-elections. The whole of Britain votes in local and European elections.
June's elections were tough, but let's not forget who won.
In the local elections, the Conservative Party won. We achieved net gains of nearly 300 council seats. We took control of 13 local authorities, including Brentwood, Rossendale, Eastbourne, Tamworth and Trafford. Conservatives are the largest party in local government. For the first time a Conservative chairs the Local Government Association. The local elections this year were a great success for our Party and I pay tribute to Gordon Keymer and his colleagues for all their hard work in achieving this.
And in the European Elections too, the Conservative Party won. By the time of the next European election in 2009, Conservatives will have been the biggest British Party in the European Parliament for a decade.
We are the leading party in Europe. We are the leading party in local Government. Now we must become the governing party at Westminster.
I am reluctant to single out any one place for their result in the European elections. But there is somewhere we scored a very special, indeed a thumping victory in June. Where the challenge of the European elections was met with tireless effort. Where the turnout was over twenty per cent higher than the average. Where the Conservative share of the vote was almost twice as large as anywhere else. Where was this place? Gibraltar.
Conservative MEPs pushed to get that vote for Gibraltar. We held firm in the face of Labour's craven attempts to sell Gibraltar down the river - and Gibraltar kept faith with us. Conservatives will never let Gibraltar down.
Despite our achievements in June, some good colleagues were not returned to the Parliament. They represented our party and Britain with distinction. We respect the right of the electorate to choose the people they want to represent them. But be in no doubt. A vote for any party at the next election other than the Conservative Party is a vote for only one thing - the return of a Labour government. Committed to the European Constitution. Committed to the Euro. Committed to a European defence force. And committed to the creation, as Tony Blair himself has said, of a European superpower.
By contrast, Conservative MEPs were elected on our Manifesto of Putting Britain First. And I give you this pledge - we will stand by every word of our Manifesto. Your MEPs will fight day in day out for Britain, for our national interest and for a Europe of nation states. We will fight to turn back the tide of EU regulation, to promote enterprise and economic growth. We will continue to expose fraud and waste in Europe. We will continue to stand up for British farmers and fishermen.
Most importantly of all, we are in the frontline in the battle to defeat the European Constitution. And, with your help, defeat it we will.
Tony Blair has recently nominated Britain's new EU Commissioner without any consultation with other parties. Surely, when Britain has only one Commissioner in Brussels, there should have been proper consultation on who was best placed to represent Britain. A statesman. Someone commanding wide support. Certainly someone who would put British interests first.
Instead, Mr Blair chose one of the most partisan politicians in the country. You may recall that a year ago in Blackpool I shared a premonition with you. It wasn't a very nice premonition. But it has come true. The city of Brussels is now being stalked - stalked by the politically undead. Yes, the Prince of Darkness - Peter Mandelson - is back.
We already have notice of what we can expect from Commissioner Mandelson. Only 48 hours ago, he publicly refused to defend Britain's budget rebate. That rebate - won through determined negotiation by Margaret Thatcher - has returned £40 billion to Britain. Every British Commissioner - Labour or Conservative - has defended that rebate until now. We say Britain's Commissioner should stand up for British interests. Peter Mandelson has already shown he is only interested in promoting Peter Mandelson's interests.
Britain still waits for our promised referendum on the European Constitution. And, let's not forget. Without the Conservative Party, without your efforts, and our campaign, there would be no referendum. Mr Blair's decision to grant it was no exercise in political principle. We dragged it out of him. We shamed him into a referendum through a relentless campaign - one which showed the nation that our Party can make a difference when we make our case with passion and conviction.
During the course of 2003, you campaigned side by side with our Conservative MEPs. We distributed no less than two million postcards calling for a referendum. We campaigned, with you, on high streets and in shopping centres the length and breadth of the country, weekend after weekend. We advertised our petition in hundreds of local newspapers and tens of thousands of people responded.
And now it falls to us, all of us, to make the case for a 'no' vote. We speak for the vast majority of British people when we say we want the single market; we want to co-operate on the environment; we want our young people to be able to study anywhere in the EU; and we know we must work with our partners to fight the menace of terrorism.
But, the people of Britain also know that we can do all this without an EU Constitution. We live in a new Europe of 25 nations, with more to come. You cannot run the economic, employment, asylum, immigration and foreign policies of all these nations from Brussels. These policies must be decided here in Britain, by a British government.
Yes, we can defeat this Constitution. And defeat it we will.
And when we do, it will be a Conservative Government - with Michael Howard as Prime Minister - that will set out a new future for Europe.
And we are not alone in wanting Europe to take a new direction. Since the first of May this year there has been a new mood, a breath of fresh air in Brussels. We have many friends in the new Member States who share our concern about the Constitution and want to develop, with us, an alternative vision.
In a few minutes' time, you will have the pleasure of hearing Jan Zahradil, the leader of the Czech ODS party in the European Parliament - a party that sits with us as European Democrats. A party that is closer to us than any other in Europe - and one that we are sure will form the next government of their country.
Jan shares many of the political principles we hold dear. Freedom, the rule of law, the free market and a belief in the nation state as the rock on which our freedom and prosperity rests.
In the 1980s, the West won not just the Cold War - we won the battle of ideas. It was the triumph of liberty over totalitarianism. The victory of freedom over oppression. And today, those of us who sit in the European Parliament as British Conservatives make common cause with people who, only twenty years ago, could only dream of freedom.
Some people have opposed the enlargement of the EU. I believe they are wrong. The very ideas that swept away the old order that divided our continent can help us to usher in a new era in Europe too. These countries are, for the most part, believers in the transatlantic alliance, in the free market, and above all in the nation state.
Already, the old power balances in Europe are changing. France and Germany can no longer snap their fingers and expect the others to fall into line. And as their influence is on the wane, we are finding allies and friends who share our priorities. The talk in Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw and Tallinn is of the power of the free market, of low taxes, of private enterprise, of deregulation. These nations have gone through the pain of change and reform. They know that the old ways in Europe are not working. So just as Mr Blair is trying to bind us to the old Europe and the old ways, we in the Conservative Party must seize the moment. We must offer leadership in Europe and work with our friends on the continent for a new vision. Change is in the air. Thanks to people like Jan Zahradil, things are looking up in Brussels. So, let's rise to the challenge of moulding a new kind of Europe, with our Czech friends and others.
Let's have the confidence to argue our case
Confidence in ourselves that we can change Europe.
Confidence that we can - and we will - win."