New thinking on Europe

Anyone concerned about Britain's future in Europe should read the Hansard of Andrea Leadsom's Westminster Hall debate on reform of the UK's relationship with the EU - or watch in full below.

Not only does it provide a rapid canter through an emerging policy alternative that may soon be the mainstream thinking among Tory backbenchers, but it also maps out the dangerous ideological crosscurrents in which policies, and indeed governments, can easily flounder.

Andrea Leadsom is the leading light of the Fresh Start Group of 100 plus Tory backbenchers, who have been beavering away for quite a while now, working out what this country should seek from a renegotiation of British EU membership. What would agricultural policy, regional policy, social policy and the rest look like, if the Conservative euro-reformers had their way?

Along the way there were some interesting ideas for reforming the way Parliament dealt with EU issues - a specialised EU question time, and far stronger scrutiny of European directives, and the proposal for a rolling opt out, under which any newly elected government in any EU member state would have the right to pull its country out of EU policies with which it disagreed - withdrawing from the Schengen open borders agreement might be one example.

And she also took a swipe at Britain's representatives in Europe, both officials and elected MEPs, for "going native" - and even speaking with a "weird half French, half German accent".

The group has some official support - the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, wrote a foreword to its policy review - and Ms Leadsom believes it has come up with proposals which, if accepted, could reconcile British voters to remaining in the EU. And it provides an alternative to the heady appeal of the vocal Conservative lobby which wants Britain out - preferably by next Tuesday. That could explain one of the undercurrents of the discussion; the number of Conservatives who veered between semi-agreeing and wondering whether they were really being fobbed off, just when they feel they're winning the argument.

Labour and the Lib Dems were pretty much bystanders in what was essentially an internal Conservative discussion. The Labour shadow minister Emma Reynolds amused herself by highlighting Tory divisions (while rebuffing attempts to find out whether Labour now supported a referendum on EU membership) but the real interest was the interplay between Tories who want Britain out; Tories who want renegotiation; and between old guard Tory euro-sceptics who regard the new kids on the block as a bit naive and new-wave Tory backbenchers who're impatient with those they regard as fixated on abstruse constitutional issues.

Some implied that Fresh Start were labouring to produce yesterday's vision of tomorrow - a reform option which might have looked attractive five years ago, but which had now been overtaken by President of the EU Commission Jose Manuel Barroso's call for more federalism, at last week's sitting of the European Parliament.

Others, including the Maastricht veteran, Bill Cash, simply didn't believe that the EU would be prepared to give Britain what it wanted - to which the retort was that the current crisis gave Britain a lot of leverage, and that the EU needed Britain more than Britain needed the EU, so there was plenty of scope for negotiation. There was some interesting tactical advice from the Conservative former cabinet minister, Peter Lilley, who suggested Britain should approach rolling back EU powers in the same way as the Commission approached extending them - with salami tactics.

But he thought the key battle would be to overturn the acquis, the long-standing doctrine that once the EU acquired competence over a policy area, it was never relinquished. If Britain could establish a precedent for clawing back powers, that would enable more powers to be repatriated in future.

Meanwhile, Peter Bone, who wants Britain out of the EU, thought that the Conservatives should promise a referendum on any renegotiated membership package - and give voters the option of withdrawal at the same time. That, he said, would win back voters from UKIP and restore Tory fortunes.

And David Nuttall, who chairs the parliamentary Better Off Out Group, predicted that the voters would never be given that option. He thought a referendum would be a choice between the status quo and modest reform of Britain's membership - an "in-in" rather than "in-out" choice. His answer was that voters who wanted Britain out should write the word "out" on their ballot papers, so the number of spoiled papers would indicate the support for withdrawal.

As one of her colleagues remarked, Ms Leadsom might have been a minister by now, but for her support for a motion calling for an EU referendum. Instead, she is opening a new front in the European conflict, with a policy prescription which falls short of leaving the EU - but which could still put the government in a difficult position, if they have to deliver, or at least promise to deliver, it.

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