Writing in Today's Daily Telegraph, the Foreign Secretary William Hague spells out the Government's opposition to an EU referendum.
On Monday, the House of Commons will vote on a motion for a referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union. The Government will oppose the motion. Our policy is very clear: we believe that Britain should be in Europe, not run by Europe. We believe that Europe needs fundamental reform. As a Conservative, I want to bring powers back from Europe, as we set out in our election manifesto. But a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, especially at this time of profound economic uncertainty, is not the answer.
Europe is back in the headlines across the world. The eurozone crisis is the epicentre of global economic difficulties. Monetary union without greater fiscal integration has not worked. But the countries of the eurozone are our closest neighbours; more than 40 per cent of our trade is with them. Nothing would do more to help our economic recovery than a resolution of the eurozone’s difficulties, while its disorderly break up would have a very serious impact on our economy.
That crisis is stimulating debate in Britain about our place in Europe, a debate already alive because of the British public’s unprecedented disillusionment with the European Union. One of the major causes of this is the Lisbon Treaty. The EU is much changed since we joined in 1973: there have since been five major treaties. All the previous treaties had at least been foreshadowed in the governing party’s general election manifesto; all but Lisbon.
Not only did it not feature in Labour’s manifesto, it was almost the same as the constitutional treaty on which they promised a referendum. The Conservative Party fought hard and was united in voting for a referendum but we did not succeed: Labour got the treaty through without consulting the British people, a shameful act. That has been a serious blow to the European Union’s democratic legitimacy in this country.
There are many other reasons, such as those European policies, regulations and directives that are unnecessary and unwanted interferences in our national life. Why on earth should it be decided in Brussels what herbal medicines people here can or cannot buy? And why should the training of doctors in local hospitals be mucked about by European legislation on working hours?
But despite these many burdens and nuisances, the EU brings advantages that are enjoyed daily by people and businesses across the country and that are important for our prosperity: nearly untrammelled free trade across 27 countries, enforceable legal rights to work in all those nations, and combined clout in trade talks to open new markets for our goods and services.
The ability to lead European countries to a united position, as with sanctions on Iran and Syria, strengthens Britain’s power in the world. Even obscure directives can have benefits: directive 2009/147/EC prevents the slaughter of our garden birds as they migrate over the Mediterranean.
Consequently, my view on the European Union has long been that we should be in it to enjoy its advantages but not let ourselves be sucked into a federal state, and we should be bringing powers back rather than handing more over. That has long been the Conservative Party’s policy.
We have a Coalition Government; the two Parties differ on Europe, but in a year and a half we have accomplished more than Labour did in 13 years: there has been real success in bringing the EU budget under control, saving hundreds of millions of pounds from what Labour committed us to; where Labour enmeshed us in EU bail-outs, we have won agreement to get us permanently out of such liabilities; and now the referendum lock is law, there can be no further change to the EU treaties that shifts power from Britain to the EU without triggering a national referendum – under the provisions of the Act passed this summer all the treaties of the past 20 years would have been subject to a referendum in Britain.
The sudden holding of a referendum on leaving the EU would add to economic uncertainty at a time when businesses need all the certainty and confidence they can get. And it was clearly not part of the manifesto on which Conservative MPs were elected, or part of the Coalition Agreement by which we govern.
Instead, we should use any further changes to the EU treaties to our national advantage. The whole Government is agreed that we must first make sure that eurozone integration would not allow countries in the single currency to impose decisions on countries outside it and, second, ensure that Britain’s leading position in financial services is recognised and protected. Beyond that, we should seize opportunities as they arise to reduce the EU’s powers in Britain in other areas, most importantly in social and employment laws, where EU interference is doing real harm.
A decade ago, many thought we could settle our position on Europe as “thus far and no further”. That is no longer adequate. There may be debates about means and timing, but the Conservative Party is united around the goal of bringing powers back from Brussels to Britain. That is what we stand for, that is our aim now and that is what we will campaign for in future elections.