Britain and Europe

When you ask people what they think is the most important issue facing Britain, very few will name our relations with the European union.

Although there are some people to whom the issue of Britain's role in Europe is very important indeed, it doesn't usually make it into the list of the top ten issues found by opinion pollsters to be of most concern to voters.

Conservatives have to be particularly careful not to sound obsessed by the European issue, because it can easily come over to voters as though we are neglecting the issues they care about - jobs, the economy, hospitals, schools, the cost of living - in favour of debates about Europe which sound abstract and irrelevant to the mother trying to put food on her children's table, the small businessman trying to keep his company afloat, the working man trying to keep his job, the doctor trying to help his patients, and all the other heroes who keep Britain going.

But here's the thing. What happens to Britain's relationship in Europe often strongly affects those issues - fuel prices, hospitals, jobs - which people do care about.

Here are three examples of how Britain's relations with the EU can affect things like fuel costs, jobs, and hospitals.


Recently the European Parliament voted on an incredibly difficult issue relating to the price of carbon. I doubt if one person in a hundred in Britain would think that sounds like something which has a significant affect on them. But those who don't are wrong.

A high price for carbon - which is what the EU Commission wanted to push for - would shove up fuel costs, affecting energy bills for homes and businesses and feeding through into the cost of living. Just what we don't need at the moment.

But a low price for carbon sends all sorts of wrong signals about the need to prevent pollution and, of particular relevance to Cumbria and the North West, reduces our chances of getting the new nuclear power plants which our country desperately needs to start building soon if we are to avoid major power cuts in the next decade without being dependent on Putin's Russia for gas.


Britain is a trading nation and export a huge proportion of what we make. About half of those exports go to the EU - the other half to the rest of the world.

Which means that if we try to improve trade with the European Union in ways which damage our trade with the rest of the world - as linking our the pound too closely to the D-Mark once did, and scrapping the pound for the Euro would have been worse - we're in trouble. Equally, if we came out of the EU on the wrong terms and damaged our trade with the other countries of Europe, that would be catastrophic too.


The European union can affect our health service too. Originally the European Working Time Directive had an exemption for certain groups including hospital doctors. However there was a time limit on that exemption, and it has expired. Resulting in discussions with the EU about how this should be applied in Britain, and expressions of serious concern from senior doctors.

Because applying the EU Working Time directive too rigidly to the NHS would result in hospital closures.

So it's right that we have a debate on Europe. It's essential that we try to find allies to work to reform the EU, to maximise the benefits and minimise the costs, as long as we remain members. We would still have to work hard for a constructive relationship with the EU if we vote to leave it, because they account for so much of our trade.

And our negotiations with Europe, whether we are in or out, need to be guided by a ruthlessly hard-headed and pragmatic view of British interests, not by the idealists and fanatics at either end of the spectrum. Britain cannot afford to have starry-eyed pro-Europeans making key economic decisions on a political basis and putting a wish to be at the heart of Europe ahead of what actually works. But neither can we afford to allow our relations with our major traded partners to be wrecked by a visceral hatred of anything to do with Europe.

I was involved with the campaign to keep our currency from the word go - I was the Association Chairman in whose constituency William Hague launched the "Keep the Pound" campaign -and I believe that a positive approach to Britain's interests in Europe was right then and is right now. And that means support for a Europe of Nations as Mrs Thatcher proposed in her famous Bruges speech, and as William put it a few years later, explaining that our first choice was to be part of a reformed, democratic Europe, we want to be "In Europe, not run by Europe."


My parents' generation had a vote on whether Britain should be part of a European Economic Community - known then as the "Common Market"  - but the British people have never had a vote on whether we want to be in the European Union as it exists today. I believe it would be a healthy thing to have a referendum on this issue.

The Conservatives are the only major party which has promised such a vote if we win the next general election. The Conservatives are also the only major party which can deliver such a referendum and can be be trusted to keep the promise to do so.  We have a record of keeping promises like that, while Labour and the Lib/Dems have a record of breaking them.

At the 2005 election all Britain's major parties promised a referendum on what was then called the "European Constitution" and eventually became known as the "Lisbon treaty." The Conservatives kept that promise and voted for a referendum. The Liberal Democrat leadership whipped their MPs to abstain. Labour ordered their MPs to break their election promise, forced the treaty through without a referendum. Gordon Brown then disgusted supporters and opponents of the treaty alike by turning up to sign it on his own after the other leaders had gone, in the hope that nobody would notice.

I believe that a reformed, more democratic Europe would be good for both Britain and for other countries in Europe - good for jobs, good for the environment. But better democracy must begin at home, and that means letting the British People decide.


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