The Conservative Party needs to spell out what would happen on the day after a ‘no’ vote on the UK remaining in the EU and deliver a Brexit timetable – says Tory MEP Marta Andreasen
Even the most ardent political anorak needs a break from time to time. So it is with yours truly. But, if I am honest, I never really switch off. And so when I was recently reading the agony column in a Sunday newspaper, I was curious to see what advice would be given to someone deliberating over whether to end a bad relationship. I wondered what might happen if a simple and obvious answer were to be given – ‘just walk away’.
It would not make an arresting reply, for sure, and it lacks finesse. More importantly, it would not give the recipient sufficient advice to reason their way through a difficult choice. However it did set me thinking. Is ‘just leave’ – the UKIP position – a real option when it comes to our relationship with the European Union?
Unless you are foolish enough to wake up in Las Vegas with a bad hangover and a certificate of marriage to someone you only just met, a quick and brutal divorce is probably not the best option. A properly negotiated and friendly departure is the best option for all parties except the lawyers.
I should say from the start that I have always been in favour of a United Kingdom departure from the EU, and remain so. The stifling bureaucratic nonsense that the EU has become is far from the free-trade area that Britain was told it was signing up for back in the days of the common market.
My own experience as chief accountant in the European Commission a little over a decade ago showed me that the union is just a great money spinner for the fonctionnaires who work within it, with considerable disdain for those who supply the money: the taxpayers.
To prove my point, as I write this, the European Court of Auditors has just released its annual report on the EU budget – this one for 2012. The reported error rate has increased again, from 3.9 per cent in 2011 to 4.8 per cent. That is almost 5 per cent of the total EU budget, or more than €6bnif you prefer, of taxpayers’ money which has been subject to error, irregularity and fraud.
If this were the case in a private sector company, the shareholders would be demanding resignations – or making dismissals – at board level. And rightly so, it is a disgraceful state of affairs. But walking away without a backward glance is not an option. While emotionally appealing, it would be politically naive – the politics of the student union. Our ties to the EU in legislative, trade and political terms – unlike the Gordian knot – cannot be severed with one slice of Alexander’s sword. They are embedded in the UK’s legal structures and will need patience and time to undo. Otherwise the economic and political consequences for Britain will be painful and lasting.
This is the reality of the situation. There is no doubt that the EU needs to change. British Prime Minister David Cameron has already laid out areas where reforms must take place. Other countries are starting to line up behind us demanding an end to interference, an end to the costly red tape that is strangling growth and an end to sovereignty creep by repatriating powers. But will this be enough to make continued membership possible?
Those wedded to a deeper, ever more federal Europe need to wake up to what is happening. Few outside the corridors of Brussels share their vision. A majority of business leaders favour the conservative renegotiation position. They want a return to a union where costly, burdensome and unneeded regulation is gone in favour of countries working, sharing information and trading together without barriers.
Personally, I remain sceptical that such a turnaround is possible given the all-or- nothing attitude pervading the commission and shared by large numbers of MEPs, and of course European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. But it is worth trying. It will take time. Alliances of like-minded countries will have to be built on. The results can then be taken to the British public in a referendum that – and this is crucial – only the Conservatives are able to deliver in 2017. This is a sensible time frame.
However what is currently lacking is a strategy for disengagement if renegotiation fails. It needs to be spelled out what would happen on day one after a ‘no’ vote and a timetable that would show how we get out and what the steps would be. This timetable would be helpful on several fronts. Focusing minds in the EU that a plan was in place it would exert pressure. It would reassure the public of our intentions. It would inform people, step by step, of the stages of our divorce.
Returning to the analogy of the agony aunt, it is for the Conservative Party to lay out a clear narrative giving all the options and allowing citizens to make an informed choice about their relationship with Europe. This process of reflection will take time, but a timetable needs to be set out now.
Marta Andreasen is a Conservative Party MEP for South East England and former chief accountant European Commission