At times of crisis, the future belongs to those with both a plan and the political will to drive that plan through. The EU’s flagship policy, the euro, is currently in crisis and we need to ensure that, in the final analysis, it turns out to be a beneficial crisis, not just a painful one.
Rewriting EU treaties to provide for the gradual breaking up of the euro would require negotiations which could place the very shape of the EU up for grabs and it is an opportunity which we must not squander but must plan for. It should become a key objective of British foreign policy to break the power of centralised European institutions like the European Court of Justice and to streamline the EU so that it does far less but actually delivers in the areas where it is capable of adding value.
For many years, there was a tension between the conflicting agendas of expanding the EU or delivering deeper integration among fewer members. The more countries you have, the harder it is to get agreement and the fewer things the EU can do collectively. The expansion of the EU to 27 member states ought to have been a triumph for British foreign policy but weakness and confusion in the Blair era meant that Britain never followed this success through to re-order the EU in the way that was required. Instead, the jaded 70’s agenda of “ever closer union” survived and, as a result, today the EU is a failing institution with a questionable future.
Many eurosceptics are weary of talk of reforming the EU and who can blame them? There will indeed be some political forces within the EU who will seek to exploit Europe’s latest crisis to make the case for deeper integration as they have always done in the past. But what if this time it really is different? The mood has changed, not just here but in many other EU countries where national parliaments are increasingly restless. The tide is against those who favour integration. One Brussels based lobbyist recently told me that the whole place feels rudderless and stale. It sounds like a good time to strike. As we proved in the euro debate, there is no such thing as historical inevitability and it is not inevitable that Britain will be out-manoeuvred again.
But such a plan will require Conservative politicians to overcome their cynicism and have one last go. The party has many old scars over the European issue and MPs who lived through the nineties tend to fall in to two basic camps. First there are those who concluded that they couldn’t trust their own government and feel the need to drive a coach and horses through their own parliamentary party now. On the other hand, there are those who concluded that Europe is such a toxic issue for the party that it must be avoided at all costs. Both these groups are wrong but the behaviour of each reinforces the view of the other. The more divisive motions we have, the more some wail that we shouldn’t talk about Europe, the more the ‘Better Off Out’ brigade feel vindicated, the further we are from being able to dominate the agenda about the future of the EU.
We now have a genuinely eurosceptic Prime Minister who is better placed to deliver than any of his predecessors, including Thatcher. He means business, can be ruthless when necessary but enjoys good relations with other EU leaders and does it all with a smile. The role of the Conservative Party should be to urge him forward to the challenge and, most of all, help him devise that plan for a radical overhaul of the EU.