Brexit battle will be won, or lost, on the economy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Syed Kamall with Jean-Claude Juncker in the European Parliament. [ECR/Flickr]

The British are not emotionally attached to the European Union, so Brussels needs to show them that the EU can compete with other major economies in the run-up to the UK’s referendum on its membership of the bloc. While issues like democracy, immigration and the EU budget will play a big part in the referendum campaign, it’s “the economy, stupid”, writes Syed Kamall.

Syed Kamall is the chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament and a Conservative MEP for London.

I sense that last week’s election result might not have been as warmly greeted in parts of Brussels’ European quarter as it was in Conservative Party Headquarters. Yes, a majority Conservative government means we will have an in/out referendum. That was the promise and it will be delivered. So, rather than seeing that as a threat, I believe we should see it as a generational opportunity.

In his Bloomberg speech David Cameron was clear, “I don’t just want a better deal for Britain. I want a better deal for Europe too.” The rise of criticism and apathy towards the EU is not a British phenomenon. A recent poll by the think tank New Direction shows that 49% of people in the UK want reform, compared to 58% in France, 46% in Germany, and 49% in the Netherlands. It seems clear that the perception between what people want out of the EU, and what some EU institutions wants for themselves, are growing further apart. We need to close that gap.

Many in Brussels seem to be looking for David Cameron to now present a shopping list to Brussels. In many ways that misses the point of what he is trying to achieve. The problem the EU faces is not in a few treaty articles, or several pieces of legislation. It is cultural. It is the approach that says only more centralisation, more agencies, and more laws present the solution to every problem we face; that spends vast amounts of money sustaining an insular bubble atmosphere around the institutions and argue that, whatever the problem, more Europe, more regulation or more spending have to be the answers. It is the approach where interest groups and well-meaning politicians appoint themselves as the “representatives” of “the citizens”, thinking they know what’s best for their lives.

Clearly this culture is not going to be turned around in a few years, especially in the European Parliament. However, we do have it within us to show people that we are capable of more than simple self-aggrandisement. We can help with solutions to the great challenges they face.

And we should recognise that in many areas the reform agenda is winning through. The British people rarely hear about it but when it comes to long term budget negotiations, reforming the CFP to devolve powers away from Brussels, or priorities like the single market, freer trade, or breaking down barriers to finance, we are starting to see reform narrative used – at least by the Council and parts of the Commission.

Logically issues like democracy, immigration and the EU budget will play a big part in the talks and the referendum campaign itself. However, as we see in most elections, and as Bill Clinton’s campaign office sign said, it’s “The Economy Stupid.”

The British people are not emotionally attached to the EU. For us it is not a marriage that we have vowed to stick by for better or for worse. It needs to show it is capable of offering solutions to the challenge of competing against large economies like the US and China, or fast-rising economies. It is the key challenge that we face in the next few years, and it underpins so many other problems we face both domestically and even geopolitically.

Addressing it will require facing off against vested interests and taking decisions that are in the right interests of Europe’s voters. The battle will be against those (self) interest groups – often EU funded – who seek to stir up falsehoods about trade deals, or argue that repealing legislation on ladder safety makes us responsible for anyone who might fall from them.

Economic growth does not come through knee-jerk legislative reactions to every interest group that peaks the populism of some in the European Parliament. It comes about with a clear economic plan. It does not come about by slogans like “the Juncker Plan”, or “Energy Union”, but by clear and consistent pro-enterprise policies.

My father always says that people who say something cannot be done are showing up their own limitations rather than yours. Rather than firing red lines like arrows across the English Channel, why don’t we in Brussels now take the time to sit down and work out an arrangement that works for all? I do not believe it is beyond the wisdom of man to achieve it. And you never know, you might find David Cameron’s effort to find a better arrangement between the EU and Britain has a positive effect on voter support right across the EU.

The next few years present an opportunity. So let’s see fewer glum faces in Brussels, and embrace the next few months as an opportunity to make an EU fit for the challenges of the future, rather than wedded to ideas of the past.

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