The relationship between Britain and EU

By Politics Last updated: November 19th, 2012

So the question arises: what relationship should we have with the eurozone states? How can we retain the common nexus of the single market while standing aside from political integration?

Let me answer that question as specifically as I can. I want a new relationship with the EU, based on free trade, intergovernmental co-operation and alliance. I want Britain to work closely with its neighbours while retaining autonomy over its domestic affairs. I want us to remain full partners in the single market, but I don’t believe that this requires us to accept the primacy of EU over British law. I want an independent Britain, trading with its allies, but governing itself.

What would we need to do differently to realise such an ambition? Let me list some of my goals.

  1. Independence in the field of justice, home affairs, immigration and visas.
  2. A derogation from European social and employment policy, including the 48-hour week.
  3. Withdrawal from the Common Agricultural Policy.
  4. Withdrawal from the Common Fisheries Policy, and the reassertion of UK jurisdiction over our fishing grounds out to 200 miles or the median line.
  5. Non-participation in the European External Action Service.
  6. The ability to sign free trade agreements independently with non-EU states.
  7. The supremacy of UK over EU law within our own territory.
  8. Sovereignty over our regional policy, and non-participation in cross-border Euro-regions.
  9. An opt-out from EU social, regional and foreign aid programmes.
  10. Control of our own environmental policies, including non-participation in the Emissions Trading Scheme.
  11. A budget contribution that reflects our diminished participation in these policies.
  12. And while we’re about it (not that this one is a deal breaker) we’d like our stiff blue passports back.

Some will say that we’ll never achieve all these objectives. I am not so pessimistic. The relationship I have outlined is very similar to the one already enjoyed by Switzerland. Precedent exists.

But the ultimate judge of whether we’ve secured a good enough deal shouldn’t be me – or, indeed, any of the other party leaders. It should be the British people.

That’s why I’m announcing today that there will be a referendum in the first half of 2016 on our continued membership of the EU.

I will use the intervening period to seek to bring back the improvements I have just outlined. I may not secure every item, but if I can achieve something along the lines of what I’ve set out, I will recommend a Yes vote in the subsequent referendum and campaign for continued membership.

If I am not able to achieve those objectives, the alternative is to seek a Swiss-style accommodation from the outside, declaring our intention to withdraw and activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which provides for the negotiation of alternative terms. That is not my preferred option, but it should hold no terrors for us.

I mentioned in my speech at the recent Conservative conference that, over the past two years, our exports to Brazil have risen by 25 per cent, to China by 40 per cent, to Russia by 80 per cent. I didn’t mention, but I could have done, that our exports to the EU had fallen over the same period.

Europe is an important market; but it is just one market. The central economic fact of this century is the rise of a consumer class in what we still think of as developing nations. Britain needs to exploit that opportunity and, if we can’t do so from within the EU, we will quit the Common External Tariff and raise our eyes to more distant horizons.

Let me say something to everyone who wants Britain to remain in the EU. To pro-European MPs in every party, especially our coalition partners. To the Leader of the Opposition. To our allies in other EU governments. And, not least, to our diplomats and other civil servants who will be carrying out these negotiations. We have less than four years to bring back a deal that the British people can accept. Help me to secure that deal.

I appreciate that people are cynical about promises made by politicians about Europe. My party must accept its share of the blame, along with the other two, for stoking this cynicism. People are not inclined to accept promises from any party leader when it comes to the EU. I understand that.

Accordingly, I intend to make government time for a Bill in the current parliamentary session that would provide for a referendum to be held in 2016. All Conservative MPs will be expected to support it.

I don’t know whether such a Bill will pass. The Liberal Democrats fought the last election on the basis of supporting such a proposal; indeed, they ran a nationwide petition demanding an In/Out poll. But they have since voted differently. They will of course decide for themselves whether to support the legislation when it comes before Parliament.

Labour, likewise, will make its own decision. There might be a majority in Parliament for such a Bill, in which case, before the next election, people would have the assurance, in legislative form, of a vote shortly thereafter.

That, though, is not in my hands. It might equally be that such a Bill would be voted down. In which case, people will see for themselves which MPs went through which lobbies. They will observe, in physical form, the Conservative Party’s commitment to letting the country decide. And, before polling day, they will have had the clearest possible token of our intent to hold a referendum if we get a parliamentary majority next time.

As I say, I hope to be in a position to recommend a Yes vote when that moment comes. But no one – least of all a prime minister negotiating on behalf of his country – goes into talks without a bottom line. I have set out what I regard as an acceptable solution. If it is not on offer, so be it. We are the seventh largest economy on Earth, the fourth military power, a member of the G8 and one of five permanent seat-holders on the UN Security Council. Our tongue is the most widely spoken on the planet. We are connected by law and language, by habit and sentiment, to every continent. “Tho’ much is taken, much abides. And though we are not now that strength which, in old days, moved Earth and Heaven, that which we are we are.”

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