Conservative Party must not pander to UKIP hysteria about Europe

Writing in today's Guardian newspaper Sajjad argues we would loose most of the electorate and damage British interests if we don’t seize the chance to reform the European Union

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A month ago, after the Scottish people voted against independence, British political parties promoted the prospect of greater UK devolution so that strength through union would be counter-balanced with fairer local representation. Striking this balance was seen by many as central to the healthy functioning of the union. Questions about the fairness of the existing UK settlement formulas came strikingly to the fore as they have done in the EU with unforeseen demands of billions in extra contributions for some member states including the UK just being announced.

But a similar attitude is not taken in relation to Britain’s EU debate. Instead anti-EU MEPs voted against the European Commission, including some from the Conservative Party, reflecting an uncompromisingly hard-line attitude that demands EU exit at all costs. Demands for extra EU contributions will equally not receive the examination applied to the Barnett Formula with a way forward being found that is more balanced and equitable. Instead we can expect to see much by way of attacks on the EU with little presented by way of solution other than the exit door.

This is why it’s all the more vital that the Conservative Party maintains a position on Britain’s membership of the EU that does not pander to UKIP pressure, particularly when UKIPs work is being done from within.

A British EU exit would be catastrophic for a country that does most of its trade within the EU. And the popular counter-argument that the UK, upon exiting the EU, is well placed to agree free-trade agreements with Commonwealth countries such as India is beyond wishful thinking. As the special rapporteur for the EU-India Free Trade Agreement in 2009 I can safely say that countries like India value the UK as a gateway to the EU, the biggest single market in the world. Without it they are not going to sign balanced trade agreements with us just for old times sake. The argument that the "EU prevents us from concluding bilateral trade agreements" applies the same logic as if "I divorce my wife I can go out with Naomi Campbell."

Brits must understand we cannot influence policy once out of the club. But we can do so now, at a time when keeping the UK within the EU is high on the agenda of the EU leadership and at a time when the EU narrative is currently inextricably linked to the issue of reform.

Whilst having Jean-Claude Juncker as the new President of the European Commission represents an old Europe that most voters did not want, he is nonetheless taking steps towards reform, something that should be encouraged, not disparaged. The appointment of committed EU reformist Frans Timmermans as Vice President and allocating Lord Hill a portfolio so vital for the UK are significant enough to gain UK backing. Team Juncker, like the rest of Europe it seems, is keen to keep Britain at the table. But for Britain to take advantage of this ability to influence the agenda, we need to be willing to engage.

Voting against the new European Commission does nothing more than alienate the UK, distances us from influencing reform and only panders to short termism with the upcoming general election in 2015. It adds fuel to the fire of those intent on misleading the British public even if it means harming the very fabric of our society by conducting poisonous "confused hysteria" debates on subjects like immigration.

As for the Conservative Party, it is a broad church encompassing a wide variety of views; the majority look to stay in a reformed EU, while others may write columns and columns of UKIP fodder screaming to pull out of the EU but still call themselves Conservatives. The latter is very much a point on party discipline that ought to concentrate our Party leadership more, otherwise we risk surrendering the centre right ground and with it the majority of the British electorate.

But the Conservative Party must not become a UKIP proxy. We cannot as a centre right party be drawn into the hubris and hysteria of populism that demands total withdrawal from Europe whilst ignoring the obvious dangers of such action and spurning the very real opportunity for reform that lies ahead of us.

Voting against the Commission would have been a vote against the UK national interest. Why choose isolation over cooperation, when our best chances of reforming Europe are through collaboration?

Sajjad's article is on the Guardian web site here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/26/conservative-party…