SPECIAL REPORT / The UK’s Europe minister outlined his country’s expectations for the next EU executive, arguing the digital economy and business must come first in the fight against the economic and social crisis.
“We need to be honest with ourselves about the scale of the challenges we face. It isn’t anything short of the challenge of a generation,” David Lidington, the British minister of state for Europe, told a room full of EU pundits in Brussels. “We can only respond to these if we recognise them for what they are.”
Lidington was speaking on Tuesday (13 May) at an event organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC), a think tank. He laid out the priorities that the UK would push for as the next EU executive drafts its working programme.
With a strong emphasis of business interests in Europe, the EU minister argued the EU Commission must “avoid the temptation to launch a thousand of new initiatives”.
“Whatever intentions these initiatives have,” he said, “they will burden business”.
The EU opened up a huge market for UK companies, the minister acknowledged: “easyJet, for example, said they wouldn’t operate in the way they do today if it weren’t for the EU single market. Still, business also says it is still the case that, too often, you find micromanagement.”
A stronger impact assessment is one of the tools the UK wants to push, Lidington clarified. “EU legislation ought to be looked at through the prism of a growth test. When amendments come forward, the question should be asked: ‘Will this change add to jobs and foster growth?’.”
“The Commission has improved the quality of impact assessment a great deal,” said Lidington. “Parliament has started to make progress […] As far as the Council is concerned, we’re not even at that stage yet.”
What clout left for UK?
The question is to what extent the UK has become isolated within the EU. The ruling Conservative party keeps a strong focus on their promise to put the UK’s EU membership up for a popular vote at home.
“We have to work with allies,” Lidington said to reporters after the talk. “What encourages me is that on deregulation and cutting red tape [and other domains] is that we’re getting support for the ideas that we bring to the table.”
“I think that on a great deal of what we want to do, there is a recognition that this is in the common interest. We’re not carving out a self-interest programme.”
Reform of EU’s architecture
The UK’s EU minister outlined five priorities in his speech in Brussels. Apart from an emphasis on competitiveness, the UK government’s priorities include:
- a thorough discussion on freedom of movement
- creating an EU architecture that allows for deepening the eurozone while keeping countries like the UK in
- developing a long-term strategy for energy security
- addressing the crisis in EU democratic accountability
“We think the EU Council of Ministers should be able to work with the Commission on setting the initiative [in the EU],” he said. “It is a simple fact that voters relate more with national parliaments and governments [than European ones].”
Like many mainstream parties in government across Europe, the UK’s Conservative-Liberal coalition is predicted to bleed votes in the EU elections next week, and the general elections in 2015.
Most swing votes are expected to go to the Eurosceptic, populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) which takes a clear anti-European position, and has increased political pressure on the ruling Conservative Party to toughen their approach to EU issues.
But Lidington stressed that “this is not something that is unique” in the UK. “Addressing this crisis is essential for all member states.”