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February 19, 2013 5:54 pm
David Cameron’s position on Europe is not just good for the UK, it is also good for the EU. In a recent speech, the prime minister laid out a process for regaining the British people’s trust in the UK’s relationship with the union – renegotiation followed by an in-or-out referendum.
If the UK stays inside the bloc, it will be because Britons want to stay. If it leaves, it will be by popular consent. But the prime minister’s offer to the UK is an opportunity for other Europeans: the EU does not serve the best interests of Europe. Indeed, it cannot. His determination to reform the union is in the interests of the whole continent.
An open, flexible and dynamic Europe will help the EU grow and prosper. A closed, rigid, over-regulated and centralised Europe will help nobody. The key is to persuade the UK’s European allies of this.
First, Britain needs to generate a debate about how Europe can retain its economic advantages. The growth discussion has been hijacked by those who think prosperity comes from a bigger EU budget rather than a bigger, freer market.
One option to counter this trend may be to commission a group of economists, diplomats and business leaders to give an evidence-based assessment of future economic opportunities and areas of co-operation for the EU. Crucially, it should also set out areas where the EU should disengage.
This is the moment to press the UK case. In 2014, every EU member will elect new MEPs. The year will see the selection of a new European Commission president, a new European Council president and a new secretary-general of Nato.
The people that will lead the continent should do so with an agenda that has been shaped in London. Work must begin now on everything from energy policy and competition to international development and climate change.
A renewed move to liberalise Europe’s market in services should be central to this drive. Europe missed previous chances to allow service workers from accountants to plumbers to work across the EU. Europeans still buy 90 per cent of their services from companies in their home countries.
The second task is diplomatic. William Hague, the foreign secretary, has rebuilt neglected relationships with old allies such as Australia and new friends, for example Brazil. But a European challenge remains.
In France, the governing Socialist party is almost implacably hostile to Britain despite the good Franco-British co-operation in Libya and Mali. Leading figures in Poland have gone from seeing Britain as a dear friend to an obstacle. In Spain, one often hears that it has been years since a British leader paid an official visit. Even in Germany, despite Mr Cameron’s relationship-building with Chancellor Angela Merkel, many perceive the UK as unhelpful.
If Britain is to succeed in changing Europe it has to build multilayered links with these nations – not just at a diplomatic level but between politicians, academics and opinion-formers. Our diplomats need to think less about persuading other foreign ministries and look for ways to generate public debates.
Britain should emulate the US International Visitor Leadership Program, which brings rising stars in various fields to America. We must also find ways to replicate elements of the Franco-German co-operation with other states. For example, we could organise a joint sitting of the UK and Polish parliaments and a joint UK-Dutch cabinet meeting.
Britain’s success in arguing for a cut in the EU budget shows that it is not isolated diplomatically – and has friends that share its vision. The UK needs to build on this success with a thoughtful and innovative campaign, which sets the stage not only for Britain’s new relationship with the EU but also for a new phase for Europe.
The writer is a Conservative MP and former international development secretary
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