William Hague responds to David Miliband’s claim in The Spectator that the Tory EU policy is suicidal and says the government’s own strategy has been an abject failure
Three weeks ago in these pages David Miliband bravely took up the challenge of defending Labour’s record on Europe and claimed that the Labour government has been shaping the European debate. Yet the reality is that this government has brought Britain no greater influence in EU affairs nor greater standing internationally, while its legacy will be to leave the EU more lowly regarded in this country than ever before.
Take first the case of the renamed EU constitution, the Lisbon Treaty. The solemn promise of a referendum followed by the premeditated breaching of it must rank among the most calculated acts of political dishonesty in modern British history. Trust in politics is now at an unprecedented low point; the shameless and deliberate abrogation of a binding manifesto pledge is surely one of the reasons why.
This Treaty would represent a profound change to how this country is governed, the powers the EU enjoys and the role it would play in our national life. The creation of a new EU president, an EU foreign minister and his own foreign office in all but name, a legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights, the significant expansion of EU powers over areas such as criminal justice and more has led the President of the European Commission to proclaim that the Treaty gave the EU ‘the dimension of empire’.
Far from the end of institutional debate, this Treaty heralds a new round of self-absorption. In Council, Commission and Parliament, the EU’s institutional armies are already being drawn up to fight the mother of all bureaucratic turf wars over new powers and offices.
Whether you are for these momentous provisions or against them, as I am, it is surely an extraordinarily undemocratic position to believe that the British people should have no say in the matter whatsoever, either at a general election or in a referendum. Lasting political institutions can only be built with democratic consent. That is why anyone who has the EU’s own best interests at heart ought to support our campaign in these elections for the promised referendum on the Treaty.
Most significant provisions in the Lisbon Treaty were originally opposed by the government, but ministers were too weak to stand their ground. The Treaty is almost identical to its predecessor, the EU constitution, to whose text the government sought 275 amendments, of which only 27 were accepted. Years have been wasted on institutional navel-gazing when the real issue ought to have been Europe’s declining global competitiveness because Labour ministers let others set the agenda.
The Treaty is not the only British failure of recent years. This government has failed to deal with the burden of unnecessary EU red tape: at a total cost of £53 billion, 70 per cent of the cost on businesses of new regulation since Labour came to power has been European in origin. The European Commission’s recent creditable and partly successful efforts to cut the costs of regulation and move the EU in a more free-market direction have been fought all the way by Labour MEPs and their Socialist allies.
Nor has this government succeeded in securing value and fairness for Britain in the EU budget. Blair and Brown’s original position on Britain’s rebate was that it was non-negotiable. That evolved into a willingness to compromise in return for substantive reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, not a wholly unreasonable position. Yet the government ended up agreeing to cut the rebate by £7 billion, a sum now sorely missed, in return for a mere review of the CAP — a review that had already been agreed and which ended up changing very little. Seldom in history can a British government have shown such feebleness in defence of Britain’s interests, securing nothing of substance in return for concessions on a grand scale.
Labour’s alignment with the Party of European Socialists must be an embarrassment for modernisers such as Mr Miliband. Dominated by backward-looking parties like the French Socialists, the joint manifesto for the European elections Labour has signed up to belongs to the 1970s: it demands legal caps on business pay and calls for collective bargaining at an EU level. Perhaps such company explains why Labour MEPs voted to scrap the opt-out from the working time directive, vital for our public services and businesses. But there can be no excuse for Labour MEPs sitting in the same group in the European parliament with such unsavoury allies as the Polish Self-Defence Party, whose leader has praised Hitler, or an Italian former communist who promotes 9/11 conspiracy theories.
The political will and consistency necessary to make our collective voices count in the world have also been lacking. The problem is not institutional: we have the foreign policy high representative and foreign ministers’ specialist meetings. Last year’s Georgian crisis demonstrated that the problem is the absence of political resolution and solidarity. President Sarkozy brokered a ceasefire and the EU suspended its partnership talks with Russia until its terms’ fulfilment. It took only three months for unity to crumble and the conditions to be dropped, despite their flagrant violation by Russia, as leaders who ought to have known better chose the easy life over a robust stance that might be respected and effective. Regrettably, it was our Prime Minister’s and Foreign Secretary’s U-turn that screeched the loudest, a fact that has not impressed European partners.
Given the extent of Labour’s failure in Europe, can we do better? As every politician on earth now likes to say, yes we can. We need to be energetically engaged in Europe, making the case for modern-ity, openness and flexibility. On a range of issues, the nations of Europe can achieve much more by working together through the EU: on tackling climate change, on extending free trade through the Single Market and combating protectionism.
Yet engagement must not mean the neg-lect of national interests or the abandonment of our critical faculties. Where the EU does not work, we need to have the courage and will to change it. That is why a major goal of the next Conservative government will be the restoration of national control over our social and employment laws, so that once again the British government can make the decisions on how to help our businesses and families. For too long the European parliament has been dominated by a cosy consensus that deeper European integration is per se a good thing. Our answer is to establish a new mainstream, centre-right group in the European parliament that will enable those who oppose EU federalism and believe in reform to be heard clearly in that institution. The idea that this isolates the British Conservative party is ridiculous; not only are groups and European governments ready to work with us, but they are already doing so.
For more than a decade we have had a British government whose idea of being in Europe’s mainstream meant following in others’ slipstream. The results have been meagre. Under Tony Blair, promise evaporated into promises. Under Gordon Brown Britain has sat on the sidelines. It is time to try the alternative: vigorous and clear-headed engagement with a British government that knows what it stands for and gives a clear lead.
William Hague is shadow foreign secretary.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 30, 2009