Tory europhiles don’t often come out in the daylight: they normally give the impression they’re frightened that their associations will get grumpy, or that their fellow MPs will try to shout them down. But today the pro-EU group European Mainstream launched their new pamphlet, In Our Interest: Britain with Europe, which takes a stance that is quite unusual in the Conservative party: it agrees with the Prime Minister’s Europe strategy. The 62 MPs on the group – who include Ken Clarke, Damian Green, Richard Benyon and Caroline Spelman – didn’t seem at all shifty or nervous when they gathered in Westminster Hall this afternoon to launch the pamphlet and make a positive case for Britain in Europe.
The European Mainstream bunch like to joke that they’re constantly underestimated as a group, though they represent around a fifth of the party. But from today’s presentation, they’re not so far in their own beliefs from the Fresh Start Project Conservatives, who are similarly optimistic about the prospects for reform in Europe, albeit with a readiness to vote ‘out’ in a referendum. The Mainstream MPs are very much ‘in’, even if they don’t get the reforms that the Prime Minister wants. And those attending the launch frequently emphasised the need to persuade fellow Europeans of the need for reform rather than insulting them. Richard Benyon told the room that ‘we have got to be bolder and more upbeat about how many friends we do have in Europe’.
Clarke was particularly optimistic, telling the launch that the Prime Minister would be able to secure big reforms without treaty change. He said:
‘If you can, it’s obviously preferable to do so because you deliver it quickly. You’ve got a set 2017 date apart from anything else and you’ve got to get 28 member states to agree to whatever reform process you’re engaged in, but what I’m saying is concentrate on the substance of the reforms, which again I feel very strongly should essentially be those that are designed to make Europe and all its member states more competitive and more able to earn their living in the modern world, with regards the interests of trade, but also political links as well and if you need an IGC, you need an IGC, if you need treaty change, you need treaty change, but the idea that you start off by saying well we’ve got to find something that requires an IGC and a treaty change is not where we are and would be a somewhat foolish way of going about it particularly because IGCs are usually quite a nightmare to handle…
‘We managed to get the Lisbon Treaty which I personally spoke and voted in favour of, but it took us about seven years and it didn’t actually change very much when we got there, so I think if you have to have an IGC you have to have an IGC, but it’s the substance of the reforms that we need to concentrate on…’
He was then asked whether reforming outside a treaty would leave the Prime Minister in a similar situation to Harold Wilson, with minimal changes and reforms. Clarke replied:
‘Harold didn’t get any changes, it was a complete myth… What he said he’d altered was financial contribution… I was campaigning in the referendum which had nothing to do with Harold’s renegotiations, nobody but Harold understand what they were. It was all about the sovereignty of Parliament and that was the big argument, the other was our relationships with the Commonwealth and how the Commonwealth was an alternative to European political links and the other thing was what it would then do to New Zealand and how we were going to ruin British farmers.’
He listed certain areas where he thought there could be agreement on reform in Europe, including energy, construction and digital industries. But one of the points conspicuous by its absence in this discussion was how these reforms are going to be achieved. Is there going to be a negotiator, as suggested by John Major, who will be working on these reforms? There are Conservative MPs from the Fresh Start Project visiting European capitals to make the case to parliamentarians in those countries, but they cannot secure meetings at the highest level. If there is to be a negotiator, then they probably need appointing reasonably soon.
Clarke and other members of the group also attacked their eurosceptic colleagues, with the Minister Without Portfolio describing them as ‘some of my more strident, and dare I say, even occasionally eccentric colleagues who I’ve seen over the years become household names for a year or two, whilst they last an then others take over and succeed them’. Laura Sandys, who organised the launch, added that ‘it is those people who’ve got a loud voice on the sidelines that seem to gain traction’. And Ben Wallace (Clarke’s PPS) ridiculed the idea that Conservative associations are quite so aggressive on this issue as some of his colleagues might think, arguing that those who made the loudest noises about Europe tended to find that their constituencies contained a strong swell of support for Ukip (this is a chicken and egg argument that Conservatives could doubtless occupy themselves with for some time to come).
Sandys also accused her colleagues of having a ‘romantic’ idea of what leaving the European Union would mean for Britain, saying:
‘It is fascinating, isn’t it, that there is a proposition out there that this dastardly relationship that we have to have with these dreadful Europeans is going to be replaced by this unbelievably harmonious romantic relationship with the rest of the world. One relationship between a husband and wife is difficult enough, 27 is difficult, but the point is we’re not walking away from the difficulties, we’re walking to them, in Britain’s national interest. It is extremely easy for us to walk out of the door.’
It’s fair, then, to say that Conservative europhiles aren’t prepared to be the shy and retiring bunch that they’ve sometimes appeared to be in recent years. They’ve pitched their rhetoric at the same level as their eurosceptic rivals in the party. Doubtless there will be a similarly robust response from that camp to today’s launch.