UK Politics

Tory MPs seeking Labour dialogue over 'EU overhaul'

Union Jack and the flag of the European Union Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Tory MPs say the eurozone debt crisis makes the need for wider reform more pressing

Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers want to build a cross-party dialogue with like-minded Labour MPs about reshaping the UK's relationship with Europe.

A new group of 90 Tory MPs will meet on Monday for the first time to discuss ideas for "a radical overhaul" of the EU in the wake of the euro debt crisis.

One said he was keen in future for Labour MPs to attend as the number of opposition eurosceptics was growing.

Ministers have ruled out any imminent renegotiation of European treaties.

Monday's meeting is likely to put down a marker on the issue ahead of next month's Conservative Party conference, where the future of the EU is likely to be a prominent issue.

Attitudes to Europe within the Conservative Party have hardened in recent months as EU leaders have spoken openly of the prospect of closer fiscal union to support the embattled eurozone.

Despite the UK not being a member of the single currency, David Cameron has insisted the break-up of the eurozone is not in the country's interests, while George Osborne has suggested further integrationist measures - such as pan-euro bonds or debt guarantees - may be needed to support the weaker euro members.

'Sensible discussions'

Although Monday's meeting is open to all Conservatives, the initiative is being driven by MPs elected for the first time in 2010.

They are regarded as being more eurosceptic than their predecessors and keener to take back powers from Brussels, initially focusing or social and employment legislation, rather than just resisting further economic and political integration.

One of the group's leaders, George Eustice, David Cameron's former press secretary, said it would promote a "sensible discussion about how we can radically overhaul the EU and make it fit for purpose in the 21st Century".

"We need to end the presumption of ever-closer union," the MP for Camborne and Redruth said.

"There is already a strong case for some of these powers being repatriated to national Parliaments."

Discussions would take place in a "constructive" not "divisive" manner and the group would support the government, he stressed, particularly in its handling of the immediate crisis facing the eurozone.

"We have a eurosceptic prime minister and a Conservative Party which means business. We want to work with the government," he added.

"It is important we start to come up with thinking about what the EU will become and how we want to start to change it."

He confirmed the group's leaders - which also include Chris Heaton-Harris and Andrea Leadsom - had put out feelers to Labour MPs who shared their views.

"There have always been a fair number of Labour MPs who are quite sceptical. The new Labour intake is quite sceptical about Europe and looking to change our relationship with it."

Referendum issue

Some Tory MPs, led by veteran Eurosceptic Bill Cash, want to go much further and are calling for a referendum on the UK's continuing membership of the EU.

Mr Cash wants the public to given a choice between leaving the EU altogether or renegotiating membership to base it upon a free trade area underpinned by political cooperation.

Mr Eustice, a former UKIP election candidate and anti-euro campaigner, said he disagreed, saying "now was not the time to be calling for referendums".

Labour's frontbench has seized on the formation of the new Tory group to suggest the "same old" divisions on the issue were resurfacing in the party.

"Instead of internal squabbling about Europe the government should be taking the lead in Europe on urging a global plan for growth," said shadow Europe minister Wayne David.

But five Labour MPs are among those to have signed a petition - to be handed in at Downing Street on Thursday - calling for a referendum on Britain's future in Europe.

Last year the government introduce a "referendum lock", guaranteeing that no further major transfer of powers from London to Brussels could happen without first being approved by the public.

Asked about the prospect of a wider referendum at prime minister's questions, Mr Cameron said "we are in Europe and we have to make it work for us".


Mr Cameron, who also met European Council President Herman van Rompuy on Wednesday, has said he could push for a renegotiation of existing EU rules on employment and financial regulation at an appropriate time in the future.

The UK Independence Party, which campaigns for Britain's exit from the EU, said it was "obvious" the UK's existing arrangements inside the EU were not working but that Mr Cameron was not proposing an alternative.

"By ruling out a referendum, he leaves himself naked in the negotiations," leader Nigel Farage said.

"Our EU colleagues must be laughing at his naivety."

With Europe's focus squarely on its economic problems, the Treasury has made clear there is no "immediate prospect" of a major renegotiation of existing laws.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg - whose MPs are mostly pro-European - has warned against using the current crisis to fundamentally redraw the UK's relationship with Europe.

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