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The Conservative Party Needs a Radical European Vision

06/08/2013 22:26 BST | Updated 06/10/2013 10:12 BST
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The Conservatives' European policy is settled. If David Cameron wins a majority at the next General Election, it will hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union by 2017. Who knows what look the prime minister will have with his renegotiation strategy, or how it will play out when Tories are campaigning against each other over whether or not we are better off out. Your guess is as good as mine. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats are on the back foot, and the grassroots love Mr. Cameron - well, dislike him less - for it.

But there is one thing people, especially Europhobes, have tended not to think seriously about. What if the British people vote to stay in the EU? Most 'Better Off Out-ers' just assume that given the chance they will vote to leave. What if they don't? We would be stuck with the status quo of 'ever closer union'. The Europhobic right would totally collapse. Ukip would lose their raison d'etre. Britain's membership of the EU would be 'case closed' for decades, much like it was after the 1975 referendum. Where would this leave the Conservative Party?

For so many years the Conservatives have been defined by a strong hostility towards the EU which has on occasion come close to borderline hysteria. Memories of Winston Churchill's speeches in favour of a 'United Europe' (though his own view of Britain's role in such an entity is still somewhat ambiguous), the Conservatives' key role in shaping many fundamental European institutions, are now just an old, jaded memory which has failed to capture the imagination of a new generation of Conservatives.

This has left the party very ill-prepared for the eventuality of the British people rejecting withdrawal from the EU. So far the Tory case for staying in the EU has been negative and timid in that the emphasis has been on reclaiming powers and reversing changes rather than improving and reforming institutional structures. If we want to be in a solid position should the Eurosceptic argument be defeated at the ballot box then they must have a positive vision for Britain's future in Europe.

What would such a vision look like? The key principles at its heart must be economic and political liberty. A positive Conservative vision for EU reform has to fight for a less regulated, protectionist, subsidised, and taxed single market which can compete in the global economy and credibly champion global free trade as the best means of raising the most deprived countries in the world out of poverty. Complementing this would be a serious overhaul of EU structures based on a more decentralised and democratic model which allows competition and innovation to flourish through the people, instead of stagnation and decline as has been the case under the current centralised and bureaucratic model.

If the Conservatives can help forge a new EU which is a community of nations instead of a grandiose federal project, then it can be a more effective force for the pursuit of global peace and prosperity by demonstrating that moderate multilateral means can successfully deliver liberal ends.

It has become abundantly clear that the status quo will not do and 'ever closer union' towards a bureaucratic super-state does not bear thinking about. If the British people choose to reject the idea of leaving the EU then the Conservatives must be ready to face the challenge of reforming the EU towards a more liberal, decentralised, and democratic model. But this can only be done when Conservatives are ready to speak out and propose a radical European vision for the 21st Century.