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Can British Conservatives Love Europe?

What is the British Conservative Party's view on what the European Union should — and should not — do?

February 25, 2004

What is the British Conservative Party's view on what the European Union should — and should not — do?

The British Conservative Party is not known for its pro-EU stance. But the Party is sick of its — and Britain’s — image as a constant nay-sayer. To remedy this, it proposes that countries should get to opt in to any new EU initiatives when they support them — rather than having to opt out when they are opposed. Party leader Michael Howard explains in this Globalist Document.

Europe needs to go in a new direction. I say this as leader of a party — the British Conservative Party — that has been at the forefront of Britain’s engagement with Europe.

It was a Conservative government that first applied for membership in the early 1960s. It was a Conservative government that took us into the European Economic Community in 1973.

It was a Labor government that threatened to withdraw from Europe and held a referendum on that issue in 1975. It was the Labor Party that stood on a manifesto of withdrawal from the European community in 1983 — a manifesto on which Tony Blair was first elected to Parliament.

Three years later, in 1986, it was Margaret Thatcher who was one of the leading forces behind the Single European Act, which established the single European market.

I am determined that Britain shall remain a positive and influential member of the European Union. But British policy towards the EU has often led to worse, rather than better, relations between states.

Faced with a new EU initiative, our traditional response has often been to oppose it, to vote against it, to lose the vote — then sulkily to adopt it while blaming everyone else. You are understandably sick of constant British vetoes. And shall I tell you something?

So am I.

Many fears about the way in which the European Union is developing, on both sides of the Channel, stem from the fact that it is seen as a one-way street to closer integration to which all must subscribe.

This is a perception that must be changed if Europe is to retain public confidence. Of course, there are basic requirements, which all member states must accept.

Foremost among these are the four freedoms of the single market: free movement of goods, services, people and capital. But a single market does not require a single social or industrial policy — far less a common taxation policy.

Allowing countries to pursue their own policies in these areas will encourage the spread of competitiveness across Europe. Forcing common standards upon them will mean that Europe as a whole falls further and further behind as each member state tries to put its own costs onto its neighbors.

A flexible approach raises the important question of how to decide which areas should be applied to every member state — and which should be optional. In my view, every member state should be allowed to administer for itself those policies that do not directly and significantly affect the domestic affairs of other member states.

Matters such as tariffs and cross-border pollution could be left to Brussels. But in areas, which serve their own national interest, individual member states would be able to decide whether to retain wholly national control or whether to cooperate with others.

The nations of Europe should come together as a series of overlapping circles: Different combinations of member states should be able to pool their responsibilities in different areas of their own choosing.

So far, everyone has had to move forward together, with individual countries negotiating specific opt-outs. This has caused tremendous tension.

But since 1998, there has been a procedure within the Treaties that could be used to allow some member states to go ahead with further integration in a specific area — without involving every other member state.

It is, as you know, called enhanced cooperation. It means that, instead of individual member states having fraught negotiations to opt out of a new initiative, those that support it can simply decide to opt in.

This would allow those countries that want to integrate further to do so. But others would not be compelled to join them. It suits the integrationists. It suits the non-integrationists. Let’s use it.

It would enable us to strike a new deal on Europe. Those member states that wish to integrate more closely would be free to do so. It would not be necessary for them to drag Britain — and quite possibly some other member states — kicking and screaming in their wake.

We would say to our partners: "We don’t want to stop you doing what you want to do, as long as you don’t make us do what we don’t want to do."

In that way, we would be able to break free from the institutionalized tug of war that has so often characterized relations between the member states of the European Union in the past.

It would no longer be necessary to impose on the European Union a rigid straitjacket of uniformity from Finland to Greece, from Portugal to Poland. We would be able to create a structure in which Europe’s member states would have room to breathe.

I am not talking about a two-speed Europe. That implies that we are all agreed on the destination and differ only about the speed of the journey. I don’t want to reach the destination that some of our partners may aspire to. But I don’t want to block their aspirations.

My policy is simple. Live and let live. Flourish and let flourish. That is a modern and mature approach.

In my view, it would create an imaginative structure for the European Union that could well be seen as a model by countries in other parts of the world that wish to cooperate more closely with each other without sacrificing their essential national sovereignty.

That flexible approach, variable geometry, would ensure that we create a "made to measure" Europe in which the institutional arrangements comfortably fit national interests — not an "off the peg" Europe, ill fitting and splitting at the seams.

Adapted from Mr. Howard’s speech entitled “A New Deal for Europe” to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Berlin on February 12, 2004. For the full text of this speech, click here.