Since last week’s Commons motion on a referendum on our membership of the EU, there has been debate in newspapers, on the blogs and among Conservative and Liberal politicians as to whether and how we might repatriate powers from Brussels. Any treaty revision to improve the governance of the Eurozone would, the argument runs, be an opportunity for the UK to seek the return of competences yielded to the EU in previous treaties.
In the past two European elections it has been Conservative policy to repatriate powers: over fisheries in 2004 and employment laws in 2009. Neither has happened. One might argue that in that period there has not been a majority Conservative government capable of delivering on those promises, but I strongly suspect that had the party won an outright majority in 2010 we would still be no nearer to realising these aspirations and had we done so the price we would have paid would have been disproportionate.
For those Conservatives who believe Britain’s future is outside the EU, no repatriation of powers would be sufficient; for those who want us to remain members, there are always other priorities.
Perhaps we should frame the question differently: Would another treaty negotiation afford us the opportunity to reform the EU?
During the negotiations for the Maastricht Treaty John Major had the following words added to the preamble: “ RESOLVED to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity”.
Now, the idea that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the citizen is a very Conservative one. We believe that decisions are best taken by individuals and families and where that is not possible, by local rather than national or supranational government. Since its first appearance in the Maastricht Treaty subsidiarity has been a principle more honour'd in the breach than the observance. Of all the directives and regulations promulgated since 1992 the Court of Justice has incredibly found only one to flout this principle.
The peoples of Europe, on whose behalf EU leaders and the Commission claim to speak, are frustrated with the centralising tendency of never-ending institutional reform. It is time to make the case, not merely for the UK to take back powers, but for the EU to return powers that it has accumulated over the past 50 years to individuals, families, local communities, and national governments across the continent. From agriculture to regional policy, from environmental legislation to employment law, there are things that would better be done “as closely as possible to the citizen”. The single market does not require uniformity: fearing a race to the bottom in social, employment or environmental policy is a council of despair. “Unity in Diversity” is the motto of the European Union. It is time to swing the balance back in the direction of a little more diversity and a little less uniformity.