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September 29, 2013 7:23 pm
The UK prime minister vowed on Sunday to remove Europe’s commitment to “ever closer union” from the EU treaty, in a move intended to placate eurosceptics ahead of the Conservative party conference in Manchester.
David Cameron said he would seek a “radical” renegotiation of Britain’s relationship in Europe, focusing on free-market reforms and the removal of the EU’s original mission statement, which commits member states to closer integration.
“That is not what the British people want and it’s not what I want,” he told the BBC. “Other people can sign up to an ever closer union, but Britain should not be in an ever closer union. I’m determined to make sure we get out of that.”
Although there is considerable resistance across the EU to any new treaty negotiation – the ratification process of such texts is tortuous and fraught with political risk – Mr Cameron said he was “convinced one has to happen”.
Persuading 27 other member states to abandon the dream of the bloc’s founding fathers will be a huge undertaking, even if the Dutch government did give Mr Cameron some encouragement earlier this year “that the time of an ‘ever closer union’ in every possible policy area is behind us”.
Mr Cameron is thought to envisage a legal fix allowing some member states to retain the commitment, but Tory officials insist he wants the offending phrase deleted from the EU treaty, rather than an opt-out for the UK.
Allies of William Hague, foreign secretary, insist Germany is “willing to have a discussion” on the question, while Nordic countries are also thought by Tory officials to be open to the idea.
Mr Hague told the Tory conference that a proposed 2017 referendum on membership would give people a say on an EU that had encroached on many areas of national life “without permission” from British voters.
Any move on “ever closer union” would be largely symbolic although Mats Persson, director of the Open Europe think tank, said it could have judicial significance, since it would force the European Court of Justice to drop “its bias for more centralisation”.
The bigger test for Mr Cameron in any renegotiation would be to reorient the EU along Tory lines. He said the EU needed to change to compete in a global economy because it had become “too anti-competitive, too anti-enterprise, too bureaucratic”.
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, shares some of those sentiments but has rejected the idea of unpicking the existing EU treaty, fearing a bout of “cherry picking” that could unstitch the whole enterprise.
Mr Cameron is also planning an immigration bill to close “loopholes” in EU free movement legislation which he believes can lead to “benefit tourism” in the UK and excessive costs for the NHS.
But László Andor, European Commissioner for employment and social affairs, told the Financial Times that Mr Cameron’s government had failed to provide any “statistical evidence” that benefit tourism was happening.
Mr Andor said last week: “Sometimes it’s anecdotal, sometimes it’s a reference to the government’s feelings rather than actual proof that benefit tourism actually exists.”
He is also opposed to any attempts by Mr Cameron to weaken the EU’s social legislation. “The EU is supposed to be a social market economy,” the Hungarian commissioner said.
“We don’t want a Dickensian perspective for industry or any other sector. There has to be a minimum level of protection for all.”
Meanwhile Mr Cameron said it was possible that Britain might have to pull out of the European Convention of Human Rights – a charter unrelated to the EU – if reforms were not made that allowed Britain to quickly deport unwanted foreign nationals.
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