David Cameron’s big speech on Europe last month was the culmination of months (actually probably years) of calculation and work. The speech itself was not the point, nor indeed was the policy of a referendum following a Conservative win in the 2015 general election – despite what many activists and MPs would like, and as I have said before, that single policy is not the thing that is going to win the next election. The point is the renegotiation and the opportunities it brings for a Europe that works better in Britain’s interests, but also in the interests of the rest of the EU.
Andrew Mitchell has written a piece for the Financial Times this morning pointing out that the really hard work is yet to come. He suggests some sensible starting points, such as policy development and advocacy work to ensure that European growth is rooted in the open, freer, bigger market that Conservatives know to be the only sustainable path to a future. He suggests particularly focusing on working with the next generation of European leaders, because with elections in 2014 and a new Commission and President, and NATO secretary-general, this is the ideal time to ensure that the people who will be in those positions in eighteen months’ time have a sensible, workable, deliverable suite of policies ready to go – and crucially, that those policies are in tune with the changes we know are needed.
Allied to this is the need to boost our existing European relationships – the outcome of the budget talks two weeks ago proves that the UK can make a case that appeals to other leaders. But it needs more than Nespresso and Haribos in a single all-night marathon of “bazaar”-like negotiations. As I’ve previously argued, there is a disappointing tendency with this Conservative leadership to think that saying something once will make it happen. They need to argue the case wherever there’s an opportunity again and again; they need to provide substantive options to talk about with the people who make things happen; they need to be clear about the argument they’re making and continually push and harry to make the case and then deliver it.
Andrew Mitchell clearly understands this. Doing all this behind the scenes work isn’t glamorous, it’s usually not even interesting, and it is an enormous task. But it needs to be done if we are serious about delivering that new relationship with a European Union that works in the future interests of all its members.