With so much else going on, many will not have noticed that a radical new law was passed by Parliament on Wednesday night. The European Union Act 2011 will be the most important piece of legislation on how we handle the EU passed by any British government since we joined the then-EEC.
After its entry into force this summer, no British government will be able to sign up to a treaty change or a so-called “ratchet clause” - the self-amending provisions brought in by the Lisbon Treaty - that shifts further powers from the UK to the EU unless the British people consent in a referendum. That will be the law.
This is a historic development for the British people and for our Parliament. This law hands back democratic control of the way the EU is developing to the British electorate.
Now no British government will be able to agree a new Lisbon Treaty, or join the euro, or give up our border controls, or set up a European army, to give just a few examples, without first gaining the explicit agreement of the British people. I am confident the British people, if asked, would say a resounding “no”, but whatever the people say, they should be asked for their view and not denied a say.
Trust in the EU has been severely damaged, and not just in this country. Too many people feel the EU is something done to them, not by them. Some have claimed that this law will somehow damage our relations in Europe, or undermine our national interest, but if you really want the EU to work for its peoples, as I do, you must seek to repair the democratic deficit and loss of trust. That is what this Act will do, by rolling out control to the British people.
My core views on Europe have not changed: we should be in the EU but not run by the EU. Despite everything that is wrong with it, and there is a great deal that is, the European Union offers a lot for Britain: free markets across Europe that are of great benefit to our businesses, the means to work together closely in foreign affairs to our mutual advantage and the spread and entrenchment of freedom, the rule of law, prosperity and stability across Europe.
Our approach to the EU is not based on woolly ambitions but on a hard-headed consideration of Britain’s enlightened national interest. If we are going to make the most of the advantages of our membership we must be vigorous, energetic and active in the conduct of our policy.
We must be constantly alert to opportunities to advance our interests. It means that we must forge close partnerships not just with the biggest players but appreciate the importance of every country in the EU, from Malta to Finland, something the last government far too often did not.
It means that ministers should not complacently sit about in London saying what good Europeans they are, as was Labour’s tendency, but get out to Brussels and every European capital and make Britain’s case.
And it means being positive and proactive about what European countries can achieve together through the EU. So, for instance, last week representatives of 14 EU governments, more than half the EU’s members, gathered in London to discuss what we can do to help our economies grow by opening up markets and dealing with red tape, whether national or European, that make it harder for businesses to succeed.
The crisis in the eurozone remains very serious and will require leadership and decisiveness to resolve it. For Britain it shows how right we were to keep the pound but beyond the immediate threat to the recovery of European economies there is a broader danger: that the problems of the eurozone become such a preoccupation that they cause European countries to look inward. That would be a great mistake.
The future prosperity of European nations, meanwhile, cannot depend on public spending - no one has the money for that - but from growth in the private sector. We must earn our living in the world. The EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement that came into force on 1 July is an example of what is required. Expected to be worth £16 billion to European exporters, it is a huge opportunity for the UK to increase trade between our two countries, to the benefit of business, consumers and economic growth. And we will work tirelessly to conclude free trade agreements with India, the South American trading bloc Mercosur, Canada, south east Asian countries and Japan.
Besides the opportunities the EU offers we must be equally determined and persistent in dealing with the problems of its own making. So, for example, we have only just begun to bring the EU’s budget under control. It was only this spring that we won unanimous agreement that the burden of EU regulations on small businesses should be cut back. That these many problems will not be solved overnight but take years to resolve does not mean we should not make that effort.
But none of this will be possible unless we begin to deal with the democratic gap between the EU’s institutions and the peoples of Europe. For Britain the European Union Act is the first and essential step in doing that, a legal guarantee that the EU’s role can only expand still further with the voters’ consent.