As the election nears, policy promises are coming thick and fast: “the NHS, schools, the economy and jobs will be safe in our hands and ruined in theirs” – or words to that effect. Likewise, when it comes to Europe, the differences between parties appear stark. But they all make one point in different ways: Europe needs reform.
And who can argue with that? Just like any political system, the EU needs updating and changing to work properly. The same is true of Westminster, your local council and just about any bureaucratic beast. But how do you achieve that reform? We often hear of the need for “treaty change” in Europe. Without it, the EU is unreformable, right?
Actually, wrong. Progress on reform has already begun even before David Cameron’s formal “renegotiation”: Brussels has started to slash red tape and has woken up to the need to change to keep the whole show on the road.
A new EU Commission vice president for better regulation has been appointed, ripping up 80 policy plans and focusing on just 23 for the next five years. The mindset has shifted away from “I legislate, therefore I am” to a more gung-ho grasping of the secateurs.
Britain’s commissioner, Jonathan Hill, has been tasked with creating a capital markets union, which would put rocket boosters under the City. Plans on energy union have also been produced, which would lower tariffs across the EU as well as ensure much-needed energy security amid uncertainty with Russia.
Of course, much more needs to be done. But as even euro-critical groups like Fresh Start and Open Europe have set out, a great deal can be achieved without going near the treaties.
For the City, there are understandable concerns over the UK and other non-euro members being outvoted by the Eurozone. Britain already has a safeguard in the European Banking Union voting rights, so that a “double-majority” of Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries is needed for rules to pass. To make this go further, the principle could be extended to other EU institutions, and the integrity of the Single Market could be reinforced without treaty change.
Likewise, allowing national parliaments a greater say over EU decisions could be achieved without amending the treaties, and would give a clear signal on the power balance in Europe.
The common image of Cameron as a lonely warrior for change is simply not correct. Britain has many allies. In 2012, Cameron and the leaders of 10 other EU states wrote an open letter, calling for many of the policies the Commission has now taken up. Italy’s Matteo Renzi has shown courage in passing legislation to liberalise his country’s sclerotic labour market, and Spain’s pro-business policies helped create 400,000 new jobs last year. Just a few days ago, Angela Merkel threw her support behind an EU free trade agreement with India.
If the polls tell us one thing, it is that business wants to remain in the EU: 90 per cent of financial services firms, 83 per cent of manufacturers, and an incredible 92 per cent of car manufacturers want to stay in. A recent study could not find a single large British retailer that wanted to leave.
The strategy of the anti-Europeans is clear. It is to dismiss much reform as meaningless; to make impossible demands for renegotiation; to pocket every concession and raise the bar at every opportunity. When the EU inevitably fails to change according to their preposterous standards, they will campaign for withdrawal. Businesses should not allow themselves to be suckered by this dangerous argument.