The business view of Britain’s membership of the European Union is clear: the UK needs to be in the EU and to be fully engaged. While this view is not unanimous – there are those businesses that legitimately have a different perspective, either because of the nature of the business or the priorities of the people running it – survey after survey shows that around 80 per cent of companies support Britain’s EU membership.
However, it is also fashionable to talk about a “reformed European Union” – even though the exact nature of the reform desired is unclear. The City, the CBI and others have articulated the principles that should guide reform – an outward-looking EU, a more efficient decision-taking mechanism, evidence-based policy-making, adherence to the agreed concept of subsidiarity, and the end of harmonisation for its own sake.
The cries may be loudest from Britain, but the deficiencies of the EU and the need for reform are understood across the Union. The Netherlands, in particular, has articulated the sort of reforms it wants, and they are very much in line with the British view. We do not have a monopoly on vision for the reform agenda.
More significant than future reforms are the reforms underway already – without treaty change and without a British renegotiation. Less than a year ago, Jean-Claude Juncker seemed to be public enemy number one in Britain – an old-style European federalist whose appointment as president of the Commission would give all the wrong messages. Now, while Juncker is no national treasure, he is recognised as having begun the reform process, particularly in ending the 28 fiefdoms of the Commission and clustering them under vice-presidents.
The impressive former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans is first vice-president with responsibility for better regulation. Fewer new legislative proposals are being brought forward, and he has taken a number of proposals off the table, including the clean air and waste directives. Under pressure from the European Parliament, he agreed to produce a modified proposal as part of the EU’s 2030 climate and energy targets that would remove unnecessary burdens on industry. In addition, 78 pieces of pending legislation are to be either scrapped or substantially amended, ranging from regulation of the provision of fresh fruit and milk to education establishments to a recommendation on European Tourism Quality Principles. It is unlikely that any of these will be missed.
The British commissioner Jonathan Hill won the financial services portfolio – another masterstroke by Juncker – and has impressed everyone in Brussels with his approach. This is a clear illustration of the benefits of better engagement by the UK. His proposals for a capital markets union, published 10 days ago, also illustrate the new approach – seeking to remove obstacles to the efficient function of Europe’s financial markets, prioritising market-led solutions rather than the imposition of a top-down regime beginning with prescriptive regulation and a new regulator.
So two cheers so far – a good start has been made towards a reformed EU.