Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Why our new party is not eurosceptic but “euro-realist”

Europe’s World - October 13th 2009

Many policy planks in the platform of the new European conservatives and reformist grouping in the European Parliament are unchallengeably pro-European, explain Charles Tannock and Konrad Szymanski

The debate in the European Parliament over euroscepticism amused many of us on the centre-right. In the days of de Tocqueville or John Stuart Mill, scepticism stood for constructive critical thinking, but these days the term euroscepticism is a stick used by federalists to attack anyone in Brussels, who lacks enthusiasm about the European Commission’s newest initiative. Euroscepticism therefore blurs and confuses the difference between those who hate all things to do with the European Union, and those who, like us, simply have different views on its current direction and the likelihood of its success.

We see the EU differently for just one single reason – we want it to reform and therefore succeed. That is why we cannot call ourselves eurosceptics in the way the media, especially in the UK, use the term to describe destructive secessionists who argue for our countries’ withdrawal from EU membership. We nevertheless remain constructively sceptical of many of the ideas and current EU policies being put forward. The more accurate and neutral term we have adopted, and therefore used in our Prague Declaration setting out the main principles of our new European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group, is eurorealist.

So where does the debate on Europe’s future now stand? Using the pretext of combating the global financial crisis, the Social Democrats passively accompanied by the Christian Democrats want to weaken the EU’s greatest and most fundamental achievement – the Single Market. We are against this, and believe it is unacceptable that 50 years after the beginning of an economic integration process that enshrines the four fundamental freedoms of goods, services, people and capital that there should still be so many barriers against the free movement in the EU of labour and services. The hidden protectionism that is to be found in national labour laws or trade union practices weakens Europe’s ability to compete on the global market. It is also a form of protectionism that is very often directed at new EU member countries because they are so competitive in both their labour costs and the services they offer.

Protectionism of this sort has even wider consequences. Some estimates suggest that as much as 30% of the costs associated with doing business in Europe stems from the burden of EU Law. Rules that were intended to help lift trade barriers now represent a mounting economic cost. The European Commission began to implement a drive for better regulation back in 2005, and promised a “bonfire of Directives”, but sadly this laudable intention has not been remotely fulfilled. Shamefully, leftwing members of the European Parliament have been blocking this initiative, branding it as a much-hated back door to more de-regulation. We in the ECR think it is time to openly state that what Europe needs now is a strong de-regulatory push for less but better regulation.

The EU has been creating too many complex and unnecessary laws. Implementing them is an immense burden for the small and medium sized businesses that so often are the dynamos for economic growth and job creation. It is time for a change and we in the ECR intend to fight for this. The European Parliament is responsible for some of this bad European legislation, not least because instead of investing in coalitions based on specific policy objectives it leans on a coalition between EPP (mainly Christian Democrats) and Social Democrats.

We believe this to be one of the reasons for the EU’s vague or contradictory regulations. In an effort to look good to their voters, the Parliaments’ left and right wings often come up with poorly drafted legislation based on endless compromises. The only winner in this game is the European Court of Justice, because without any democratic legitimacy the Luxembourg court interprets in its infinite wisdom what it believes the EU member states and a majority of MEPs really meant. It is a form of judicial activism that goes beyond the treaty-based competences of the judiciary, whose members seem to relish the de facto power they have arrogated to themselves.

We in the ECR are totally opposed to such a form of governance. It is not democratic for unelected and totally unaccountable judges to make the law, but this is far from the only problem the EU has with democracy. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that an elected political leader proposes a referendum in any of the EU’s member countries. If the result turned out to be contrary to expectations, surely politicians would not dare say that the outcome is wrong just because it is politically unwelcome. Yet this seems to be a regular occurrence in the EU; after spending millions of euros from public budgets on information campaigns designed to encourage people to vote, EU leaders nevertheless decide not to accept the rejection of the outcomes of treaty referenda in Denmark, Ireland, France, and the Netherlands. The reason, of course, is, that the results did not fulfil the expectations of these politicians, who apparently deem themselves to be the ultimate guardians of the European integration process.

An equally serious problem is the massive spending out of the EU's budget on media projects. Some €213m was assigned to the Commission’s DG-Communication for 2008, and this was just a fraction of the massive PR budget dished-out in financial support for Europarl.tv, EuroNews, You-Tube streams and radio and TV ads. Almost every Directorate-General of the Commission now has a multi-million euro annual budget specifically devoted to media-related projects. Our objection to this is while every public administration, including the EU, should be subject to public and media scrutiny, it is questionable that it should so massively fund its own media with the aim of preventing and distorting the free flow of information and the exchange of opinions.

Looking to the wider world beyond Brussels and even the EU, we believe Europe should have more open external, neighbourhood and enlargement policies. Europe’s stature in the world is not determined by institutional changes, and the relationship between Council, Parliament and Commission is irrelevant to most people. What is significant, on the other hand, is how the EU confronts the problems facing the world today. What should our development policy be in terms of aid and trade towards Africa? What should our presence be like in eastern Europe, where regardless of what we might wish, we Europeans often find ourselves either competing or even in confrontation with Russia? How much further should the EU's enlargement process go? How should we structure our relationship with key players in Central Asia which can never be EU members?

These are some of the major challenges to the CFSP, and we in the ECR are in favour of more effective political and economic policies towards both the Mediterranean and eastern European countries. In eastern Europe we have to do more than merely support good neighbourhood relationships or partnership programmes; these countries are under ever-growing geopolitical pressure from Russia, and they require decisive economic and political support. Our active approach in this region is the key to the success of our energy security policy and independence from Russian gas imports, but we shall not achieve these goals without also a more proactive presence in Central Asia.

Having said that, we reject the idea of an EU-imposed common energy policy that would interfere with member states’ energy mixes and the proportion of nuclear power to conventional fossil fuels and renewables. We do, however, support an EU-led common external energy security policy. We are also supportive of EU policy in climate change, but we are very conscious of the additional cost burdens in terms of competitiveness to European industry so we are very clear that the EU cannot afford to act unilaterally, and must strive to achieve a global agreement at Copenhagen in December even if it means prolonging the negotiations. Energy efficiency and renewable energy alone cannot solve our short-term energy needs problems, so we are in favour of safe nuclear energy both as a means of diversification and also of sparing greenhouse gases. Europe's dependency on energy sources from unstable or potentially hostile countries will increase in the future. Passively observing Gazprom’s penetration of the market without any conditionality or reciprocity in opening up Russia’s market will not help Europe gain energy independence or diversification.

Turning to the CFSP, working to solve local conflicts with global repercussions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or the Middle East requires a constructive partnership with the U.S. and with NATO. The aspirations of some EU members like France and Germany that through the ESDP the EU should become an independent military player largely de-coupled from the United States should not be allowed to hinder transatlantic co-operation within NATO.

So the policy platform of our new grouping in the European Parliament should be clear; we believe in advancing the Single market, supporting the ability of Europe’s major businesses to compete on world markets, combating environmental challenges, showing compassion in the relief of poverty around the world through more effective aid and trade policies, and an effective external policy that includes energy security.

These problems are real and difficult, so it is tempting for some in the European Parliament to take up “substitute diversionary topics”. Among these, there is the neverending dispute over EU treaty reform, yet in our opinion the reason for the EU’s weakness does not lie in its institutional architecture, which overall works well, but in the lack of political consensus on how to solve common problems. While Russia is constructing gas pipelines under the Baltic and the Black Seas, the EU is announcing yet another common energy policy declaration of little real substance.

These problems will not be solved if we give in to distractions. And we must ask ourselves whether the EU should indeed legislate in intrusive ways on so many aspects of everyday life. Common legislation for family law, such as proposals for harmonising EU divorce and anti-discrimination laws, asylum and immigration measures, abortion issues in development policy and labour law or tax issues in some cases go beyond the powers prescribed under European treaties. These are also endeavours that, no matter how well-meaning, undermine trust among member states and most importantly public opinion and they also burden the EU's agenda without being in any way key to the priority of economic integration.

The EU’s economic strength has been based on an open market place and the strengthening of EU companies' ability to compete globally – not on structural fund transfers from the EU budget. Our diverse European nations’ combined economic and military powers will determine our future position in the world, not the design of our institutional architecture. We need an EU that is able to pursue proven goals, has the ability to act, supports the free market economy and is able to take responsibility for the planet's future.