I have taken a rather active part in the first fifty years of Britain’s somewhat eccentric debate about our role in the world and our role in Europe. The debate now is not the same as it was when I began my political career. We face a much more complex world, a more complex Union. It is obvious not only to the British public, but also to all the key European leaders, that the EU needs to reform. This is essential if its members, including the UK, are to compete properly in a fiercely global marketplace and exert our full influence in the political events of an interdependent modern world.
Reforming the EU actually means it doing more in the areas where it makes compelling sense for us to work together. We are immensely powerful as part of a market of 500 million people. In his speech last week, the Prime Minister made a strong case for a number of things the EU should be doing much better, where UK leadership as a member of the EU can improve things. I strongly agree with that. When the UK plays an active leading role in Europe we can achieve enormous things which we simply could not on our own. So the real challenge for us as we debate our role in the EU is working out what we should be pushing forward. What we should be leading on within the EU to make it – and us – a more effective economic and global power. The areas we should be exerting influence in are numerous. But let me focus on just two particularly clear examples of unfinished business – the first economic, the second political.
British Governments have always played a key and sometimes leading role in economic reform and trading policy in the European Union. The Single Market was the work of a Conservative Prime Minister – Margaret Thatcher – and her Government. It simply would not have happened without the UK pushing it forward. The benefits we reap from it are quite astonishing. But the Single Market is unfinished business. It is damaging to the economies of every nation in Europe that we do not have a single market in services when it could unlock hundreds of billions in trade – and tens of thousands of jobs. This is no time for holding back.
There has never been a more important time to push our reforming market agenda in Europe. We are facing our greatest collective economic crisis for a century. Completing the single market, properly engaging in the tough negotiations that that will require, would be an enormous stimulus. We also desperately need a programme which improves the international competitiveness of all the European economies – including ours – in a rapidly changing world in which the big challenges come from Asian tigers and bewilderingly fast changing technologies.
And we need a more open rules-based global trading system. The Prime Minister has asked me to take a role in helping to push forward an EU-US free trade agreement. I have just come from discussing this in Santiago with the Trade Commissioner. A successful agreement here has huge potential. The EU is the biggest marketplace in the world, the US is not far behind. This is an enormous deal for Britain. And there are more trade negotiations to come between the EU and Japan, the EU and India, and others.
Let me move to the second major area of unfinished business. Enlargement. The great achievement after the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of the Cold War was the conversion of old Soviet Union countries to democratic government, liberal values and market economies. Without the EU expansion as urged by Britain we could have had much more belligerent Governments on Europe’s eastern borders. And the world’s biggest marketplace, right on our doorstep, would be much smaller. Again, this is unfinished business. We need further expansion.
In my opinion an EU with Turkey inside it would be stronger and more secure. With Turkey at our side our ability to deal with our neighbours in Russia and the Middle East would be considerably improved. We are beginning to negotiate membership for other countries in the Balkans so as to end forever the conflicts and instability of that part of the world.
These are only two examples of European policies which enable Britain to have a stronger and more influential role in tackling problems in today’s complicated world in which the fates of nations are so closely interconnected. Achieving these enormous goals is not easy. It requires a hard headed approach. Tough negotiation. Strategic vision. All things which we the British have always prided themselves on having in spades. Getting as far as we have on the Single Market was largely testament to Margaret forging ahead with a bold and positive plan. Enlarging the European Union to replace the Soviet Union in eastern Europe with free democratic market economy nations was pursued strongly by British Conservative Governments.
There is a huge potential prize out there for the United Kingdom if only we focus our attention and influence in any future negotiations on the positive things that really matter. We need to concentrate on what we are in favour of and not just what we are against.
That this is not more deeply understood in this country is perhaps because the case has not been made properly for British membership of the EU for many years. The time has obviously now come for us to put the case more strongly and more coherently. It is in our vital national interest that we avoid the fatal mistake that would be a No vote if a referendum is held in the next few years. We need to create strong support for a better European Union within which Britain can exert power and influence in the modern world.
This is the transcript of a speech held by Ken Clarke at the launch of the Centre for British Influence through Europe on 30th January 2013.