Open Europe Blog

Open Europe Chairman Lord Leach of Fairford has an article in today’s Times, trailing this week’s unprecedented Open Europe-Fresh Start Project pan-European Conference on #EUReform. He argues,

There will be no escaping the European question this year. The European Parliament elections in May will be followed by the selection of a new Commission, the EU’s executive arm and spiritual home for federal-minded officials. This is also the year when the Prime Minister will set out his negotiating strategy for Europe ahead of next year’s general election and the promised referendum in 2017.

Voters across the Continent will be assured by EU leaders that the euro crisis is over. It isn’t. A financial and currency crisis has simply morphed into a social and economic crisis, with youth unemployment running at 50 per cent in parts of Southern Europe. The European elections will return sceptical parties in record numbers.

These flashing warning lights illustrate voters’ deepening frustration with the status quo. An out-of-touch Brussels political elite will no doubt try to frame the debate about Europe’s future as a struggle between moderate idealists who see the EU as an end in itself, a staging post on the journey to a United States of Europe, and dangerous “extremists” who oppose it lock, stock and barrel.

That would be a grave mistake. Without radical change, the legitimacy of the EU will continue to decline in every member state. And if there is a referendum in Britain it will be so close as to leave the issue undecided and half the country feeling resentful and disenfranchised.

However, here’s the good news: as economic and democratic realities mount, the momentum for reform is growing. National politicians increasingly sense that they risk ending up on the wrong side of history if they settle for the “do nothing” option. In an unambiguous sign of the changing mood, Open Europe and the Fresh Start Project of UK MPs are this week hosting a conference for more than 250 leading politicians and opinion-formers from all 28 EU member states. Though we won’t agree on everything, we have a common mission: reform.

For years Europhiles have used conferences to set the agenda, talking to themselves about themselves. No more. For the first time, reformers are joining forces in large numbers to call for sweeping change.

This event is about substance. Beyond the simplistic ideological divide between those who want a superstate and those who want break-up, what is the most effective way to organise Europe, practically, democratically and economically?

Over two days the focus will be on competitiveness and democracy, a testing-ground for fleshing out which concrete EU reforms the Prime Minister can achieve ahead of the 2017 referendum. Our European friends will have constructive ideas of their own.

Countless statistics show how the EU is losing out in the global race. Yet it is not hard to see how to make Europe work for prosperity, rather than against it. A liberalised market, not least in services, with each country free to make its own successes and mistakes, would provide fresh competitive edge. Returning labour market laws to the domestic shop floor, dropping the centralised European management of farm subsidies and national energy policies, ending the grossly inefficient recycling of regeneration subsidies through Brussels and cutting needless regulation across the board — all these would immediately help growth and jobs.

Above all we need a new constitutional settlement to square national democracy with European co-operation. That means facing the existential question that was posed when the euro was created: what is the common cause that defines the EU? Is it the single currency, and its ideological parent “ever closer union”? Or the Single Market?

If the EU becomes a political extension of the euro, sooner or later the UK electorate will vote to leave. Yet there has been acknowledgement — from Berlin to Rome — that it is in no one’s interest to convert countries into first and second-class members, still less to sleepwalk into the exit of one of Europe’s main powers. However, in what will be a long battle, the UK needs allies. They will be worth listening to.

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