Two days ahead of a major speech in the Netherlands in which Prime Minister David Cameron will set out his plans for a new settlement for the UK in Europe, the Fresh Start Project's Manifesto for Change urged him to focus his efforts on "a robust but achievable renegotiation of our terms of membership".
- The manifesto demands five significant revisions to EU treaties:
- An "emergency brake" for all member states on financial services issues;
- Repatriation of powers on social and employment law, or at least a UK opt-out and emergency brake in these areas;
- A UK opt-out from all policing and criminal justice measures;
- A new legal safeguard for the single market;
- The abolition of the Strasbourg seat of the European Parliament.
Foreign Secretary William Hague appeared to signal that the group's ideas chime with thinking on Europe at the top of the Conservative Party, hailing the manifesto in a foreword as a "well-researched and well-considered document full of powerful ideas for Britain's future in Europe".
"Many of the proposals are already Government policy, some could well become future Government or Conservative Party policy and some may require further thought," said Hague, adding that it will be "essential reading" for those drawing up the Tory manifesto for the 2015 general election.
Cameron is due to meet Conservative Cabinet members today to brief them on the details of his long-awaited speech on Europe and is almost certain to face questions about its keenly anticipated contents at Prime Minister's Questions.
The Fresh Start Project, fronted by former Cameron aide George Eustice and other MPs including Andrea Leadsom, Tim Loughton and Chris Heaton-Harris, is said to have wide backing on the Tory backbenches, though the exact scale of support is not known.
Its manifesto also called for non-treaty changes that could save billions annually, including reforming the EU budget for agricultural and fishing policy and repatriating regional policy.
It said further reforms should be achieved within current treaties, either by the UK acting alone or by negotiation with other member states.
The UK should also insist on the EU making progress on liberalisation of trade within and outside the 27-nation bloc.
Where EU legislation threatens to cause "significant harm" in the UK - for example where patient safety in the NHS is put at risk - the UK should consider unilaterally suspending the relevant obligations until a long-term solution can be negotiated, said the document.
Cameron is expected to announce plans for a referendum on a new settlement with Brussels after the 2015 general election when he makes his Europe speech in the Netherlands on Friday.
He has rejected calls for an immediate in/out referendum on British membership, which he said would present voters with a "false choice".
But he said it would be right to seek the "fresh consent" of the British people after negotiating a new settlement for the UK.
Eustice said: "Although it would be a mistake for the Prime Minister to set out a detailed shopping list this far in advance of any negotiations, these proposals are intended to stimulate debate, to highlight those areas where change is required and also to help inform the Government's ongoing balance of competences review."
Loughton said: "Whenever - and however - the British people are given the opportunity to decide the nature of the UK's future relationship with the EU, the Fresh Start Project believes that we should be focusing our efforts on this robust and achievable negotiation of our terms of membership.
"The reforms proposed in the Fresh Start Project's Manifesto for Change offer the best prospect of creating the new relationship we seek for the UK in the EU - effective co-operation without ceding democratic control - and offer the best chance of reaching a relationship with Europe that the majority of the people of Britain are at last comfortable with."
Unlike some of their Conservative colleagues, the Fresh Start group did not argue for British withdrawal from the EU, presenting the case instead for a "new and different relationship for ourselves whilst remaining a full member of the EU", which it suggested could also be pursued by other member states which do not use the single currency.
Their manifesto says: "The status quo in the European Union is no longer an option.
"The eurozone is facing up to the inevitable consequences of the financial crisis, and is moving towards fiscal and banking union. This is not a path that the British people will go down, and together with other non-euro members of the EU we must articulate and negotiate a new and different relationship for ourselves whilst remaining a full member of the EU.
"Our ambition is to build on the success of the single market. We want to ensure the EU institutions protect and deepen the single market.
"We also want to protect British sovereignty, ensuring that the British Parliament can decide what is best for Britain. We do not share the vision of 'ever closer union' as set out in the EU treaties.
"The UK has to tread a fine line between fighting for the best interests of Britain while at the same time supporting our fellow member states who wish to pursue further and deeper fiscal and political integration.
"This manifesto sets out the new relationship for Britain within the EU that we want our Government to achieve. Our success in the negotiation will mean a new and sustainable position for the UK within the EU."
As Cameron's speech approaches, the Prime Minister has been at the centre of a growing storm within his own party over Britain's future in Europe and relations with Liberal Democrat coalition colleagues are strained on the issue.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg yesterday warned that uncertainty over the UK's membership of the EU could have a "chilling effect" on the economy, while business leaders and Tory grandees including Lord Heseltine have warned of the dangers of setting a course for withdrawal.
Today, Conservative Cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke warned that a referendum could be used as a vehicle for protest groups to protest against the Government, and Cameron could not "take a Yes vote for granted".
Turning his fire on the "30 or 40" Conservative MPs who he claimed were calling for a referendum because they want to leave the EU, Clarke told the Financial Times: "If you realise you're doomed in Parliament, you demand a referendum - that's what the hangers and floggers used to do."
He warned: "I think if Britain ever does leave the European Union it will be difficult to adjust to our loss of a leading role in the political evolution of Europe and our reduced role in the global political world."
Meanwhile, Britain's former ambassador to the US, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, warned against a "move to the sidelines" on Europe.
Sir Nigel, a former Brussels diplomat, warned: "If we are influential in Europe then we have a bigger impact in Washington and the other power capitals. These things are mutually reinforcing.
"I just cannot see any logical basis for thinking a move to the sidelines, or particularly a move out of Europe, would be anything other than diminishing to UK's capacity, standing, influence, ability to get things done and capacity to build coalitions internationally."
Cameron has already held telephone talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt over the past few days to discuss his approach to the issue and is expected to make further calls to EU leaders before the speech.