March 16 2014 Latest news:
Monday, July 9, 2012
When the prime minister was a fresh-faced leader trying to rebrand his party, complaining about the EU became taboo. People did not want to hear the Tories moaning about Europe, said David Cameron.
Today things could not be more different. Mr Cameron constantly seeks to underline how central the eurozone’s success is to the British economy.
Meanwhile as Conservative backbenchers question his blue credentials he has discovered a willingness to discuss a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU.
With continental states looking to restructure the union due to the eurozone crisis, Tory eurosceptics believe this is the time to fundamentally change Britain’s position in the European family; and at the forefront of those looking at reform is East Anglian Member of the European Parliament Geoffrey Van Orden.
He has been an MEP since 1999 specialising in foreign affairs, defence, terrorism, immigration and energy issues. He is also the Conservative spokesman on defence and security.
But being a part of the European system has not stymied his desire to transform it; in 2010 he founded the think tank New Direction, involvement in which has shaped his views on what the EU needs to do to escape its crisis.
Both Mr Cameron and George Osborne have argued that if the eurozone wants to resolve its problems it must follow the “remorseless logic” of integration.
Their thinking is that to have European economic stability that will allow the UK flourish unhindered, the single currency must be underpinned by a single banking system and a single government.
Mr Van Orden said: “The point on remorseless logic is that there is truth in it, this is the problem and the question for the UK has been ‘when do we get off the bus?’
“We always said you can’t have single currency unless you also have a single economic governance and a single polity running it. For many years that has been our biggest objection to it.”
But the UK government urging other EU states to get into ever closer union has been uncomfortable for many Conservative politicians who see an EU super-state as an anathema.
Mr Van Orden gives a voice to that unease: “The concern from the UK point of view is one of isolation; the idea of a hostile block forming to the extent that it excludes the UK and takes decisions that impact on us financially and economically.
“That is something we want to avoid and that’s why its important we continue to take decisions that affect the single market, that those decisions are taken by the 27 [EU members] and not the 17 [eurozone states].”
He went on: “This is where I don’t support the idea if they want to go ahead and create a highly integrated European state with us on the outside – I don’t agree that’s a good idea for us or necessarily for them either.”
Mr Van Orden’s suggestion is that instead of locking states into the euro and accompanying political union, a notion pushed by people he calls “ayatollahs of integration”, the euro should be split into a ‘hard currency’ for countries like Germany and something else for struggling states.
Currencies for places like Greece and Portugal should be allowed to float separately from the ‘hard currency’ with separate exchange and interest rates, allowing those states room to take decisions to benefit their locality.
“Until they take decisions that are concerned with the financial and economic position rather than the political ones in terms of ever close integration they will not get out of this crisis,” said the Conservative.
The Tories have a reputation for self-destructing on Europe; part of the reason why talk of the EU was once banned by the prime minister.
But ever since Mr Cameron used the UK veto at an EU summit, boosting his poll ratings, Conservatives have been bolder in pushing the party onto a eurosceptic footing.
Mr Van Orden argues that the desire to reshape Britain’s relationship with the EU is not one held only by right-wing ‘gentlemen of the shires’.
He said: “In our own country whenever the prime minister says something vaguely critical about the EU certain parts of the media accuse him of playing to some swivel-eyed right wing element in the Conservative party.
“But this is mainstream thinking. The orthodoxy has shifted in Britain, most people are eurosceptic.”
As opposed to those on the Commons backbenches calling for an in/out referendum, Mr Van Orden wants the government to approach the issue differently.
He said: “I’ve long been a supporter of a referendum; I actually think it’s inevitable, it’s more a question of timing and content. I don’t think however that it’s a good idea to have an in/out referendum.
“It’s dangerous and people should be careful what they wish for - it might go the other way after all and then we would find ourselves on the path to closer integration.
“We know that the EU needs to be reshaped and the UK in particular needs a different sort of relationship. So we need to ask how we get from here to there.”
His suggestion is to hold a two-part referendum. First the government would come up with a list things it wants to change about the UK’s position, and then it would ask the country if it accepts this as a negotiating position when the chance to force a change comes.
Then when negotiations finish a second vote would be held on whether to accept the deal that has been struck. It is an approach Mr Van Orden says fulfils the desire of most Brits not to fully withdraw from Europe, but to strengthen Britain’s position and change the way it works with the EU.
With the prime minister’s new found readiness to talk about a referendum, the MEP is hoping the time has come for his ideas and that of his think tank.