The dramatic plunge in the Russian rouble and the knife-edge presidential votes precipitating elections in Greece provided more than enough copy for financial journalists this week. So it was perhaps no surprise that Tuesday’s launch of the European Commission’s 2015 work programme raised barely a flicker of interest. While the European Union has tended only to make UK headlines when a bust-up is brewing, it was nonetheless a shame given that (whisper it softly) the European Commission is beginning to say things that should be palatable even to sceptical British ears.
David Cameron has made it his mission to wake continental counterparts up to the pressing case for EU reform, summed up so powerfully in his 2013 Bloomberg speech. With European leaders’ primary focus on keeping the Euro afloat, too often this has appeared to be whistling into the wind. The anointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the new President of the European Commission – a candidate whom the Prime Minister vociferously opposed – seemed only to underscore the lack of enthusiasm for UK government’s agenda.
Yet this newly-launched work programme, outlining the EU’s legislative schedule for the coming year, contains just the kind of language and proposals that he has been seeking. Entitled ‘A New Start’, the Commission has committed itself to doing things differently with ‘less EU interference on the issues where Member States are better equipped to give the right response’. As an opening salvo, 403 laws face being thrown on the scrapheap and the legislative agenda has been slimmed down dramatically to only 23 new initiatives. This underlines the Commission’s commitment to focusing on the ‘big things,’ ensuring that needless regulation does not distract from the central mission to tackle high unemployment, slow growth and, most encouragingly, the EU’s lack of competitiveness in the global marketplace. So far, so good.
But it is the focus on expanding and sharpening the operation of the Single Market that should provide the Prime Minister and UK Conservatives with most cheer. The Single Market provides one of the finest examples in global economic history of international cooperation to the benefit of hundreds of millions of Europeans. This vast economic zone, boasting a combined GDP greater than the US and Japan, provides a level playing field in which UK businesses can trade. It is the primary reason why Britain signed up to the EU and why many Conservative MPs wish that relationship to continue.
The Commission wishes to move towards an Energy Union and open up the opportunities of the Digital Single Market, allowing consumers to enjoy cross-border access to digital services and creating a level-playing field for companies in a vibrant digital economy. It is also putting forward a new agenda on migration to address directly the concerns expressed by Cameron and others that the Single Market should mean free movement of workers, not people. This should help the government in its mission to crack down on benefits tourism of the type that so incenses the British public. Completing the trade deal with the United States remains high on the agenda, as are efforts to prevent corporate tax evasion. This neatly ties into the Chancellor’s efforts to get better cross-border cooperation on global tax issues, particularly in establishing a system which ensures the country of taxation is the country in which profits are generated.
As ever with all matters European, we should apply caution! The EU clearly has a tumultuous year ahead and it is quite possible that the Commission’s agenda will be blown wildly off course by events in the Eurozone. With little detail on the proposals, there is also plenty of room for the Commission later to slip in new rules that are firmly not in the UK’s national interest. But Mr Juncker has promised that this will not be a business-as-usual Commission. For now, as a matter of faith, I believe it absolutely vital that British MPs and MEPs take his approach at face value. As a mark of our own commitment to restyling the relationship with the EU in a way that will best restore Britons’ confidence, we must now properly engage rather than carp from the side-lines.
The Commission’s work programme, far from opening the way for further clashes between London and Brussels, underlines just what can be achieved when the UK tries to lead and properly involve itself in the European debate. More focused, better regulation. Movement on migration rules. Real progress on completing the Single Market. A focus on competitiveness. These are all things firmly in the UK’s national interest – much more so than the narrow, isolationist and backwards-looking agenda that all too many Eurosceptics wish us to pursue.