Laura Sandys is a rare thing in British politics – a vocally pro-European Tory. After being elected in 2010, Sandys is stepping down as an MP to take over as the Chair of the European Movement UK, founded by her father.
Laura Jane Sandys has been the Member of Parliament for South Thanet since the 2010 election. She spoke to EURACTIV UK’s Mark Briggs.
Nigel Farage will contest Sandys’ South Thanet seat. The UKIP leader stood for it in 2005 and lost. Sandys is confident he will lose again, and that the Eurosceptics will be defeated.
When I was a little girl I wanted a picture of a pony in my room. My father gave me the European Movement flag
Eurosceptic voices, including those from her own party, call for a return of British sovereignty leaving the UK to pursue its national interests beyond Europe. A view Sandys describes as “ludicrous”.
“I want EU+, not EU-. I want to trade with the rest of the world, of course I do. But, why exclude ourselves from 500 million consumers when I could have the EU+ the rest of the world.”
“Britain should be at the top table of any international organisation to ensure we have the greatest opportunities. We shouldn’t be walking away from anything.”
Sandys is “confident” a referendum on membership will return a result in favour of EU membership a result Eurosceptic are also predicting, she says.
Despite this, and a plea from David Cameron for Conservatives to “stop banging on about Europe”, those against membership have grown increasingly vocal since the election in 2010. In an attempt to placate this section of his party, and to dull the appeal of UKIP, David Cameron announced a referendum on UK membership of the EU.
Far from content, anti-European voices have remained prominent from within the Conservative Party, who have suffered two parliamentary defections to UKIP.
“I think a smaller cohort have created more leverage opportunities for themselves which has skewed the debate and enabled it to look more one sided than it is. They have irritated the membership by portraying all Conservatives as Eurosceptic, and they are not
You can hate Westminster, but do you want to get rid of democracy? You can hate the Commission, but do you want to leave Europe?
Despite Nigel Farage seeking to replace her as MP for South Thanet, Sandys says the area is not particularly Eurosceptic: “I’ve maybe had five occasions in the last nine years when people have talked to me about Europe on the doorstep,” she said.
Instead of patriotism, or a sense of history, Sandys says British Euroscepticism is a symptom of how the UK is organized. “Europe” has become a euphemism for distant power.
“Britain is run in a very centralized way. We are the most centralized country in Europe. I think that is a fundamental structural problem, and that creates more Eurosceptism. Europe has become a euphemism for centralized power, lack of agency. Everything that is distant is Europe.”
“If you asked people in my constituency if they love Westminster, they say the same things as they say about Europe.”
That does not mean Sandys thinks the EU isn’t in need of reform, but that reform can be achieved, and convince people to vote to stay in.
“The Eurosceptics think we can’t cope with dealing with our neighbours. They would rather run for the door than sit round the table. They are not patriotic. They are defeatist.”
“I’ve been to lots of places in Europe, and some of the renegotiation agenda is as much about tone and attitude as it is about treaties.
“Europe needs to have an external focus, to re-energize its entrepreneurship and its enterprise aspirations. In a strange way Europe has lost its own confidence. It needs to be more passionate, more confidence about how it sees itself in the world.”
Sandys is confident the UK will vote to stay in the EU, but says we have arrived at the point where the question needs to be put to the British public, either after this election, or the next.
“I think there needs to be a re-appraisal and a re-presentation about the benefits of being in.
“We’ve got to that stage; I don’t think we can go back. I wouldn’t have started from here, but now we’re here I think we need to do it.”