REFERENDUM ON EU MEMBERSHIP

PUTTING THE BRAKES ON THE EU SUPER-TANKER

David Cameron will have to move fast if he hopes to bring forward the date for the "EU - in or out" referendum to 2016. Achieving change in the EU is like putting the brakes on a super-tanker, it can take forever. David McAllister MEP, (son of a Scottish father and German mother), the former Prime Minister of Lower Saxony and a rising star in Germany’s CDU Party, came to Edinburgh in April to warn that there was no possibility of any significant treaty changes in Europe. He pointed out that even a minor treaty change could require unanimous approval by all 28 Member states, several of whom, including France and Ireland, are constitutionally obliged to hold their own referendums to seek national approval for such changes. These countries will be reluctant to go to the trouble and expense of organising referendums simply to oblige Eurosceptic Britain. They will also be reluctant to do anything that might encourage their own Eurosceptic parties.

McAllister said that it would be possible only to make some minor adjustments to existing treaties that did not constitute major change. His views have been echoed by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who said in late April that he wanted a ‘fair deal for the UK’, but he ruled out changes to core EU values such as freedom of movement. Mr Juncker said he did not want Britain to leave the EU, but also did not want Britain to "impose a European agenda which would not be shared by others". Britain cannot simply cherry-pick the bits of the EU treaties that it likes and opt out of the rest. Juncker, however, did not rule out the possibility of annexing a protocol for the UK onto existing treaties, which could later be ratified when major treaty changes are required, such as when any further new countries join the EU.

The question for David Cameron now is how far and how fast he can he push Juncker and the European Commission to achieve the scale of reforms that might satisfy his arch Eurosceptic MPs, including his own Foreign Secretary – Philip Hammond – who, together with Chancellor George Osborne, are leading the reform negotiations in Brussels and Berlin. It may be possible for Osborne and Hammond to argue a case that enables Britain to call a halt to some benefits payments to migrants from other EU Member States, but there will be no chance of restricting the numbers of people who come to Britain from the EU seeking work. The success of the British economy has acted as a magnet for workers from EU countries that are still suffering from the economic recession.

But there are other areas that Osborne and Hammond could look for reforms. Nineteen members of the Eurozone have already implemented their own massive reform package in response to the economic crisis. Juncker’s predecessor Jose Manuel Barroso told the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2013 that they should no longer be afraid of using the 'F' word....meaning federalism. He said that the Eurozone crisis had created an ideal opportunity for moving ahead with the European project of 'ever closer union', binding Member States into a federal system, which would give central control of budgets to Brussels and Berlin and allow the central fixing of taxes.

When Barroso spelled out this vision, it was a different 'F' word that could be heard from many Conservative Euro MPs. The UK could never accept such a system. We want to be part of a flexible and prosperous single market that gives British goods and services access to over 500 million EU citizens, creating jobs and economic growth. We don't want to be part of a restrictive, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all, centrally controlled EU super-state, where almost all British sovereignty has been leached to Brussels and where the euro-elite and Berlin call the shots.

Britain could also find support from many other EU Member States for a demand for cuts to the massive, overwhelming avalanche of red tape that ties the hands of business and industry. We have heard endless promises from successive Commission presidents that they would tackle the red tape burden on business, but in fact this has never happened. During my 14 years in the European Parliament the book of rules, which every EU Member State has to sign up to, grew from 86,000 pages in 1999, to 146,000 pages by 2014. The so-called acquis communautaire needs to be totally revised and dramatically cut. The CBI says that 70% of the rules and regulations affecting British business and industry now emanate from Brussels. This needs to be slashed to 50% or less without delay.

We also need to abolish the Strasbourg seat of the European Parliament and centralise all of the EU’s parliamentary activities in Brussels. It is sheer nonsense that 7,000 MEPs and staff must be uprooted every month, twelve times a year, to travel to Strasbourg, simply to satisfy French pride. It is ludicrous that the Commission and European Parliament continue to call on EU Member States to tighten their belts economically while they squander money on this Olympic scale. It is just not sustainable. Britain should also insist on scrapping the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, two completely pointless but hugely expensive EU institutions, drawing members and staff from all 28 EU Member States for what amounts to little more than international talking-shops with grandiose annual plans to circumnavigate the globe on extravagant junkets. They have to go. Finally, there is scope for the UK and Scottish governments to improve scrutiny of EU legislation and minimise 'gold-plating' which has become an oppressive feature beloved of civil servants in the past.

Putting the brakes on the EU super-tanker was never going to be easy, but David Cameron’s historic victory in the general election has greatly strengthened his hand and boosted UK credibility in Brussels. Jean-Claude Juncker should now do everything he can to facilitate the reforms that Britain seeks, so that by 2017, the majority of UK citizens will feel able to vote ‘YES’ for continued EU membership.

STRUAN STEVENSON, MEP

Struan Stevenson was a Conservative Euro MP representing Scotland in the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014.