I’ve always been an admirer of Liam Fox. In the last Tory Party leadership contest I was supporting Fox, until he dropped out, when I switched my support to David Cameron (OK, guys, we all make mistakes). And Fox has now made an interesting speech on the EU, calling for a radically different relationship . “Life outside the EU holds no fears for the UK”, he says. I agree.
And he calls for the slogan “Back to the Common Market”. I’m not sure quite how a “Back to the future” slogan works with the public, but as I’ve often said, I’d like a pound for every East Midlands constituent who has said to me “We voted for a Common Market, not for this political union”. Unfortunately, however, Liam doesn’t quite define what he means by a “Common Market”.
Characteristically, Boris Johnson is much more forthright — though I fear he’s simply using words he hasn’t really thought through. He says, in effect, “Let’s keep the Single Market, but get rid of all the bits we don’t like”.
‘m very pleased that a number of senior Tory politicians are now calling for radical changes in the UK’s relationship with the EU, including David Davis and Owen Paterson. And about time too, you may think. They’re still behind the curve in terms of public opinion.
And I believe that UKIP can take a rather large slice of the credit. We have made the case against EU membership. We have argued that we should be “Better Off Out”. And we have scared the hell out of the Tories at the ballot box. (A recent poll puts us on 16% — only ten points behind the Tories). We know that we take votes from all parties and from none, but we’re certainly perceived in Tory-land as being primarily a threat to the Conservative Party, and that’s given the Tories and urgency on the issue that they might not otherwise have had. Liam Fox explicitly makes the case that his party needs a clear European policy by end-2013, so that it’s not seen to be running scared after the 2014 euro-elections.
But I’m concerned about the vagueness of the aspirations expressed by senior Tories — almost as though they haven’t really thought through their position. What exactly is a “common market”? How can Boris have the Single Market without the stultifying regulation which forms an integral part of it?
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the “Single Market” is the problem, not the solution. First of all, it’s an old-fashioned Customs Union, like Bismarck’s 19th century zollverein in Germany. Then, to make matters worse, it’s overlaid by multiple layers of onerous and hugely expensive regulation, which undermine European competitiveness. Within the Single Market, we should be (A) subject to all that regulation; and (B) Barred from making our own free trade arrangements with other counties amongst the BRICs and the Anglosphere, where the growth is.
So let’s be quite specific: we want a Free Trade Agreement with the EU. Nothing more, nothing less. There are those who claim that this would leave us with serious country-of-origin problems. But this seems to me simply a last-ditch attempt to justify the unjustifiable, and to defend the status quo. Other countries make FTAs work. We can too. And given the huge imbalance in trade between the UK and the continent, there can be no doubt that Brussels would be keen to agree an FTA. After all, they have FTAs with Korea and Mexico, and the UK is a rather more important trading partner.
So let’s welcome the new realism on Europe from some senior Tories. But let’s also demand that they make themselves a little clearer on what they really want. And let’s remember that the only way to get there is by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will allow us to negotiate a new relationship with Brussels. Cameron’s idea that he can just show up in the Berlaymont Building and jettison half of the acquis communautaire is so much pie in the sky.