Now I'm no fan of a federal Europe - I believe most decisions should be devolved as near to the affected people as possible. I'm even less of a fan of the euro - how could anyone even think the single currency could work without a political and economic union for which there's never been democratic consent? I abhor the common agricultural policy, am angry that the EU seems permanently unable to produce any audited accounts and am incredulous that an organization that argues for a crackdown on carbon emissions has not one but two parliaments and regularly transports people and papers between them both. I despise those signs claiming regeneration projects have been funded by the European Union, when we all know they've been paid for with our money (less an administration fee to fund the lavish salaries of Brussels bureaucrats of course). Oh, and I believe Britain should be able to place some limits on immigration from poorer member nations and restrict access to benefits for new migrants who've never paid into our social security system. And this isn't even an exhaustive list of my criticisms of the EU. I could, as Lady Thatcher once said, "go on and on."
So am I a Eurosceptic? Absolutely! I'm very sceptical about the direction of the European project and I believe it's time to change course before it all goes horribly wrong. But I don't share the pessimistic view of the "Better off Outers" who simply want to walk away. For me, the UK has a unique role to play in shaping a better Europe for all the members and we should be patient, stay engaged and fight for that. More than this, I believe the turmoil surrounding Greece and the future of the euro is but one example of how the arguments are swinging rapidly in our direction, in favour of a looser, more flexible Europe rather than the centralized, one size fits all construction we (mostly) have at the moment. The fact that the UK's natural instincts in this area are being proven right means we can have a unique leadership role in helping other nations to reshape a future that works for all.
For me, the UK has a unique role to play in shaping a better Europe for all the members and we should be patient, stay engaged and fight for that. I do believe the single market is great for business, in fact my business success has come from leading and owning not one but two businesses focused on European freight. Having spent my life building European partnerships and being involved in global freight networks I can see exactly how Europe can and should work. In a word, flexibly , but crucially with minimum standards all members can rely on.
So what would my new Europe look like? My first and over-arching principle would be to turn the aspiration for a federal European super-state on its head, restoring the power to the nations and embracing cooperation where cooperation makes sense. With this one step real democracy would be re-instated and European peoples become free again. Abandoning the one size fits all regime would mean we could fling the doors wide open to new members, most especially of course Switzerland, Norway and Iceland but also countries which have initiated negotiations ie Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.
All member states would have to agree to certain principles such as:
Free trade: at the heart of my Europe would be a firm commitment to free trade and open competition between European nations and an ambition to sign free trade arrangements with as many other countries as practical as soon as possible.
Common legal standards: every country would need to accept minimum legal standards regarding human rights (via the European Convention on Human Rights - note well Mr Gove) and the rule of law as well as the European Arrest warrant.
Employment Rights and consumer protection: I love free trade but it isn't very fair unless some common standards of worker and consumer rights are in place. For example, we need worker protections in the areas of working hours, health and safety, holidays, dismissal and maternity leave. Consumers need protection from monopolies and from shoddy or dangerous goods. New members could be given a reasonable period to catch up with these standards.
Common tax standards: another objection I have to the EU is that some smaller members have been able to "incentivise" companies to channel their profits there whilst still freely trading within the big European markets. So whilst member nations should be free to charge as much tax as they like some minimum standards must be in place so that it makes sense to tax profits at their ultimate source.
A common commitment to the environment: we can't address climate change or tackle pollution on our own. A common approach is needed. The EU is big enough to make a significant impact and acting together means no one can benefit from their own inaction.
I know, I know, it's starting to sound a bit like the EU we know and love/hate isn't it? But actually my version is completely different. At its core it's a free trade area. But it recognizes that to make free trade work efficiently and fairly you need a common set of minimum standards.
Some countries may wish to go further and consider political and economic union. I simply say this to them. If (which I doubt) Germany wants to merge with France or Finland or for that matter Greece they are welcome. But they shouldn't pretend there's any half-way house and they definitely shouldn't try to embroil other countries in those plans. Member states that want to merge should hold a merger referendum and if successful should go ahead and build a common state. Other countries should be 100% exempted from all the costs, risks and implications of such an enterprise. The single currency must stand or fall on this democratic premise.
Some may want to cooperate in certain additional ways, while others do not. An example of this would be the (not-so-popular at the moment) Schengen free movement arrangements. My EU would have no problem with sovereign nations agreeing such arrangements if it suits them, indeed it would provide the over-arching forum through which such co-operations could be established. But they would be and forever remain bi- or multi-lateral and not part of a universal direction of travel.
I know it won't be easy to bring these plans to life. But I believe it's incumbent on those who want change in the European Union to offer up a positive alternative vision that would benefit the whole region rather than take a "me first" approach that many Euro-sceptics take. So here is a Europe I passionately believe in, a Europe that can genuinely advance the causes of peace, prosperity and democracy for the benefit of all. Instead of leaving, it's time for Britain to bring hope and a future to Europe once again.