The General Election is going to be about trust.
Who can be trusted to drive forward Britain's economic recovery - the party responsible for the crisis, or the party which, when last in office, left Britain with its strongest economy for over two generations?
Who can be trusted to reform our public services - the party which has simply thrown money, so-called "targets", and ever increasing bureaucracy at our hospitals, our schools, and our police forces, or the party which believes in reforming the public sector by encouraging public choice and empowering local professionals?
Who can be trusted to defend our national security - the party which has let our armed forces down in not providing the means they needed to defend our interests in action overseas, or the party which will always respect their needs and value their commitment to the safety of our nation.
And so it is with Europe. The public needs a government which can be trusted to promote Britain's national interests in the European Union by advancing its ideas clearly and firmly, and engaging constructively with our fellow members to develop the kind of Europe the public wants: a European Union which can earn their respect and merit their confidence.
The fact is that during the 13 years of this government, public support for our membership of the European Union has fallen, it is lower now then when they took office. That is a sad indictment of their record in Europe. For all the sound-bites and soft words, the Government hasn't delivered in Europe and the public knows it.
The Government simply hasn't offered clear or consistent leadership:
- To the British public they pledged to defend the British rebate and to get reform in Europe, whilst in Brussels they sacrificed part of the rebate in return for the offer of a 'review' of the CAP - a very expensive review.
- In Brussels time and again they have bent over backwards to accommodate the demands of other members to prove they are 'good Europeans', whilst indulging in macho posturing in the British media, puffing up the strength of their negotiating positions and the importance of their so-called 'red lines'.
- They agreed enthusiastically to sign up to the Lisbon Treaty but, rather than have the courage of his supposed convictions, the British Prime Minister invented excuses so he could arrive late in order to miss the official signing ceremony, and then he told us it didn't really matter as the Treaty was just a tidying up exercise and that most of the substantial changes didn't really apply to us anyway.
- And, in the ultimate betrayal, the Government told the British people they would have a chance to vote in a referendum on the Constitution and then, when such referendums proved difficult to win, they agreed with the other member states to re-package the Constitution as the Lisbon Treaty to avoid the need for a vote. They had the power and opportunity to call a referendum and by failing to honour their promise on the pretext of a shabby re-branding exercise, a precious opportunity was lost forever when the treaty was finally ratified.
No wonder the public no longer trusts Labour on Europe. And nor do our European allies. They can see through a government which tries to be euro-sceptic in the Sun newspaper but is predominantly euro-federalist in Brussels.
What Britain now needs is to earn the respect of our European partners by engaging constructively in the debate with a consistent approach. Under a Conservative Government, our partners may not always like what we have to say but at least they will always be able to trust what we say.
We do not propose to re-launch yet another tedious institutional debate. Europe has wasted enough time on institutional wrangling over recent years. Instead we want Europe to focus on the real issues that matter to people. We will nonetheless put in place certain safeguards for the future and pursue measures to mitigate the worst aspects of the Lisbon Treaty.
- we will make all future treaty changes which include any transfer of powers to the European Union subject to a referendum.
- We will ensure that none of the so-called 'ratchet' clauses in the Treaty which could result in the abolition of vetoes and the transfer of powers could be invoked without parliamentary approval.
- And we share the view of the German Federal Constitutional Court that any delegation of powers to the European Union must be in accordance with constitutions of the sovereign member states from which it derives its authority to act and that, as a consequence, the rights of domestic democratic institutions must be respected. So we will enact a Sovereignty Bill so that this principle can be upheld in the context of our own constitutional arrangements.
- we will seek a full opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights - which strayed far beyond a simple statement of core rights and became a wish-list for many different special interests.
- We will defend the integrity and independence of our Criminal Justice System through an additional protocol.
- And we will assert the principle of subsidiarity in key areas of social and employment legislation we believe are damaging to the British economy.
During the course of the life-time of the next government, there will be sufficient opportunities to realize these objectives: minor treaties are enacted for enlargements, changes to the size of the European Parliament, and so forth which could all be used as vehicles for the some of the amendments we seek.
But beyond this package, an incoming Conservative government will have an ambitious programme for European reform.
The European Union has an important part to play in supporting economic recovery. The European Commission has just published its Agenda 2020 initiative for driving forward the European economy. There is much in this we would support. We want to develop the internal market further, remove remaining barriers to trade.
Europe is a vital player in reaching a sensible and balanced package of measures in managing the challenge of climate change.
Within the Union itself over the next few years key policies will be subject to scrutiny and must be reformed: a new budget in the medium-term framework from 2014 has to be agreed, as will policies on agriculture, regional policy, research, and fisheries. There is a lot at stake.
It is because we want to reinforce this drive for reform that last year we launched our European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament. We seek to build:
- a Europe which respects the rights of its member states and the diversity of its peoples;
- a Europe which is committed to government with a light touch where the burdens of taxation and regulation are minimised;
- a Europe which is firm in its support for the transatlantic alliance.
We want a more open and transparent European Union which acts only where it can add value in a proportionate and effective way.
We may not be one of the two biggest groups in the European Parliament. But even the biggest of the seven groups in the Parliament only has about one third of its members. Everything has to be negotiated - every vote, every report, every appointment. We are playing our full part in these negotiations. Indeed now that we are free to articulate our vision for Europe and offer our proposals for reform with clarity and vigour, we are able maximise our impact on the Parliament's work.
It is simply not the case that 'influence' is dependent on being part of a big group.
Let me give an example from just last week. The Socialist Group called for all US nuclear missiles to be removed from Europe - regardless of any political, military or strategic arguments. And its Labour members? Well, they split three ways! The majority were opposed to the Socialist Group amendment but they were powerless to stop it. Powerless - so much for all their talk about 'influence'. On a question of such importance they were left on the sidelines, most of them quietly abstaining in the hope no-one would notice.
Being part of a big group is not a free ticket to influence. As everyone who really understands the European Parliament appreciates, you influence decisions by the strength and consistency of your message, by having a seat at the table, and by building networks of influence. So let me ask three key questions:
- Where are Labour in the Parliament's governing body, the Conference of Presidents? They are never there. As Deputy Leader of our Group I frequently represent it at the Conference.
- Where are Labour in the crucial meetings of rapporteurs and shadow rapporteurs, the people responsible for drafting reports? Labour are only there if they are lucky. Conservative members, as the biggest delegation in our new group, are present more often than not.
- How strong is the influence of Labour members with the Commission? After being dragged along by their Socialist allies in a doomed attempt to unseat the President of Commission, Mr Barroso - an initiative which failed largely thanks to the decisive votes of our Group - they are not regarded as natural partners of the new Commission either. We, on the other hand, are well connected to the Commission at the most senior levels.
Our opponents, in the face of this reality, have tried with increasing desperation to smear our members and you heard more of that tonight - despite the all the evidence - by distorting and twisting comments, often comments they themselves know cannot be substantiated.
For example, in a recent Labour leaflet attacking the ECR, the text consists largely of accusations covered by the phrase 'it is said that', or 'allegedly', or 'reportedly' - a word used no less than 14 times!
But endlessly re-cycling a Labour Party press release does not make for a coherent or credible response.
And, more worryingly, it is damaging our relationships with some of our partners particularly in the newer Member States
By all means attack us for our beliefs, for our policies, or for our objectives. But such smears should have no part to play in our politics.
It seems that Labour, in their increasing desperation, have resorted to such tactics.
Frankly, it is pathetic - even tragic.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the priorities for an incoming Conservative Government are to minimise any possible damage arising from the Lisbon Treaty and to work with our partners in driving forward a credible reform agenda:
- We need a European Union which delivers where the British people and indeed all the peoples of Europe expect it to act: in building a dynamic economy, in dealing with climate change, and in promoting global trade;
- a European Union which embraces reform of key policy areas such as agriculture and fisheries.
- a European Union which delivers value for money, respecting the rights of its member states.
It is an ambitious agenda but success is vitally important in the interests of the British people and indeed of the whole of Europe.