Engaged and attuned: Britain as a good European

Speech by Minister for Europe, David Lidington, on the role of the UK in the European Union

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Lidington CBE

I would like to take some time this morning to outline how the British Government sees its role in Europe. And in doing so to dispel some myths along the way.

You may well have the image in your mind of Britain as a reluctant European. Disengaged, troublesome, not a team player and, effectively, not seeing itself as in Europe or European.

Well I am here this morning to say that that is simply untrue. The bad press and undeserved reputation of the UK in Europe has gone on for too long. It is time for we looked hard at the reality of this. In particular in the context of Europe in this century

Perhaps four or five hundred years ago our relationship wasn’t so great. But let’s look at our shared respect for linguistic and cultural diversity, our constitutional monarchies, parliamentary democracies and of course our membership of NATO and the EU. Spain and the UK have great sea faring pasts that have continued with our Atlanticist viewpoint and global trading status. The wider world has been, and continues to be, economically, politically and culturally important to us both.

The free movement directive has seen the face of Britain and Spain change more dramatically than at almost any point in both our histories. 1.5 million nationals of EU member states now live and work in the UK, whilst around a million Britons live in other EU member states. 40% of these in Spain, with another 600,000 or so spending a good part of their time here. We are not just as a Government but as a people, and as a nation, engaged in Europe. Spain has over 2 million nationals of other EU member states living on her territory. 40,000 Spanish students study in the UK. For both the UK and Spain, freedom of movement and the opportunity to live, work and study in each other’s countries and that of other EU member states are fundamental to our way of life and the career aspirations of the younger generation.

Our cultural background and traditions here are key. We have seen Spain set up the Alliance of Civilisations with Turkey and many other countries to explore the roots of polarisation between societies and cultures today and to recommend a practical programme of action to address the issue. Similarly for Britain, the Commonwealth brings together 54 member states to co-operate within a framework of common values and goals including the promotion of democracy, human rights, good governance and similarly important principles.

We have enthusiastically embraced the single market, the need for urgent action to address global warming and the desires of European countries on the periphery of the EU to join.

But let’s be honest we have both done so with national interest in mind. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that. We, the UK, have stood up for our interests on, for instance, the budget and defence. Spain is well known for its position on the EU Patent.

It is in both our interests to see the EU succeed. But it must do so by addressing the challenges of the 21st century, and not those of the 1950’s. There are urgent challenges ranging from our loss of competitiveness, global warming, poverty and the growing unpopularity amongst the people of Europe for the EU itself. The world is changing rapidly and dramatically. Europe must face up to these changes. You don’t only have to look at public opinion polls in the UK. This can also be seen in Germany. And through the referendums in France, the Netherlands and Ireland. So this disaffection is not simply a British phenomenon.

Being an engaged and ‘good’ European nation is about helping Europe meet these challenges of a rapidly and dramatically changing world.

Today I’d like to take you through in more detail our approach to the Single Market and economic recovery, climate change and enlargement. An approach which I believe demonstrates our positive and active engagement with Europe in defence of our national interests.

Single market

The Single Market is vital for the prosperity of the UK, Spain and the wider EU. I take some pride that it was the dogged persistence of Margaret Thatcher and British Commissioner, Arthur Cockfield that was instrumental in creating the single, internal market.

We only have to look at the exponential growth in UK/Spain investment as evidence of the project’s success. We are now your largest foreign investor with exports totalling £15.7billion last year. You invest more in the UK than all of Latin America: £21.4 billion in 2008. Names such as Santander and Ferrovial resonate in the UK as investors in strategic sectors of our economy. Incredibly impressive and something we should all be very proud of; but I should also say that a continued drive to increase these very significant levels of trade and investment will help see us through current difficulties.

As a result of EU membership, UK business has access to the world’s largest single market with 500 million consumers across 29 other countries (26 member states and 3 EFTA countries) without customs and tariffs. Trade with the EU amounts to almost 1/3 of our annual GDP. EU Member States comprise 7 of the UK’s top 10 overall trade partners. About 3.5 million jobs - 10% of the United Kingdom’s workforce - are either directly or indirectly involved in the export of goods or services to European Union countries. Member States across Europe, including Spain, benefit in exactly the same way. This is why we must support and strengthen the Single Market, widening its remit to focus on the digital economy, energy, low carbon development and further liberalisation in the services sector: it is the only way we can see off the challenge to our competitiveness from the far east and the US. If we look beyond the current grave financial crisis in Europe, we must commit ourselves with energy and determination to strengthen the single market.

Part of both Spanish and British success has been our enthusiastic engagement of all that the single market can bring. But as we seek to strengthen the single market, it’s not fair that some Europeans haven’t held up to their part of the deal. How is it that we keep our part of the bargain and are labelled as the bad Europeans when there are other countries who don’t do the same? In Italy, British lecturers are barred from working as English Language Lecturers and in Portugal, there are minimum distance requirements between driving schools.

Spain’s ambitious implementation of the EU Services Directive, applying the terms of the Directive to areas outside the services sector, shows what can be achieved when Member States take their economic reform commitments seriously - it is our desire for those across Europe to be inspired by this approach and look to do the same.

Economic recovery

As two open economies, the UK and Spain share a common ambition to preserve free and open global markets. At the Seoul Summit last week, our respective PMs not only went jogging together, but also led the charge against a slide into protectionism and called for an early and full conclusion of the Doha trade round. Maintaining a liberal global trading environment offers us the best chance of restoring high growth and job creation in Europe while ensuring that the standards of living in the emerging markets continue to converge with the developed world. The EU´s trade agreement with Korea offers a blueprint for success. But we should also be ambitious and look to conclude EU FTA’s with India and Canada. And look ahead to Mercosur and Japan. We should push further to improve Foreign Direct Investment in Europe: last year saw European countries together secure 3,303 investment deals from outside the EU, but this was an 11% fall from 2008. 2009 also saw 38 Spanish projects in the UK: ten more than the previous year. This is the kind of positive trend we should work to support.

The single market, bilateral and multilateral FTA’s, and work to improve EU competitiveness is the only way for the EU to move forward. The UK will continue to engage closely and with vigour on this. That doesn’t mean that we will not compete for contracts against other member states any more than that we will let up in our competition for the next World Cup venue. We have a joint interest across Europe to access each other’s markets, and international markets. We must continue to innovate to be competitive and be leaders in global markets.

Climate change

Climate Change is a threat to all of Europe, both directly and indirectly. The burden will fall disproportionately on less developed countries with the consequences of political instability, migration and increased poverty. But it is also an area where a united EU position can make a real difference through market reforms and global outreach on this issue.

In Britain our economy has grown by over 40% since 1990. But our emissions will be at least 23.5% lower than 1990 levels by 2012. We are over-achieving our targets more than any of the other EU 15. To achieve this we have invested heavily in our low carbon and environmental goods and services sector. This is now worth £112 billion with exports valued at £10.8 billion. Almost a million people are employed in green jobs. Investment in port facilities encouraged the Spanish company Gamesa to make the UK its world centre for offshore wind and invest €150 million in British industry. The Green Deal incentivises the fitting of energy efficiency measures in the home. This should generate up to 250,000 jobs. This key sector can only keep expanding, which offers the prospect of increased export options as the emerging economies look for ways to modernise their economies and limit carbon emissions.

We look enviously at Spain’s record in green technology. Your efforts to decarbonise your electricity market have been stunning - I understand that just last week, close to 50% of your country’s electricity was generated by wind power on one day. That’s an incredible achievement. And one that we hope to emulate: the UK is already the world leader in offshore wind with more projects installed, in planning and in construction, than any other country. We host the world’s largest offshore wind farm, and 5GW of our energy now comes from onshore and offshore wind, generating enough electricity to power all the homes in Scotland.

But it is not enough for individual countries to go it alone; we need a united Europe that will collectively make it its mission to decrease emissions and make Europe safer for the coming generations. We are starting from a good base with the Emissions Trading Scheme, the climate and energy package and various pieces of environmental legislation.

So we can see that use of the EU Single Market and market-based solutions can help with the fight against climate change.

But that is not enough. We want - no, we need - the EU to do more. Together we are responsible for 15% of global greenhouse emissions - we will continue to push for our emissions to be cut by 30% not 20% - for that is the right thing to do and I hope you will continue to support us. By taking this position, the EU is presenting a challenge to other parts of the world and showing true global leadership. We fully endorse this position.

So I hope it is clear to you that on climate change we are at the forefront of being ambitious Europeans.


Enlargement has been one of the EU’s biggest successes. We also are strong supporters of the European Neighbourhood Policy and believe that EU membership should be open to all European countries that want to join, and can meet the criteria.

Enlargement has created stability, security, and prosperity across our continent. It supported the peaceful transition to democracy in Greece, Portugal and central and Eastern Europe and, of course, in Spain. Currently, the prospect of EU membership is, more than anything else, driving both economic and political reform and reconciliation in the Western Balkans. The UK has played a leading role in keeping enlargement on track and making it a success. And like Spain, we are champions of the further expansion of the EU. We do not agree with some who argue for a pause after Croatia, or even a full stop.

I worked in the Foreign Office at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, not as an MP, but as a Political Adviser to our then British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. I remember watching TV news bulletins and reading telegrams coming in from British Ambassadors reporting the changes sweeping across Central and Eastern Europe first-hand. At that time I had a real sense of the continent of Europe coming together again after the fracture of 1914, made worse by the events of World War II and the Cold War.

It was probably the single most exciting and welcome set of international events in my lifetime. During this time of great change, the artificial political barriers between East and West in Europe were swept away. The peoples of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Baltic States and others shared the values and aspirations of their Western neighbours and they demanded the same democratic and political freedoms. When I compare the history of Central and Eastern Europe since 1989 with that of the continent in the 1920’s and 30’s what is striking is that this time round freedom, democracy and the rule of law have been sustained and strengthened instead of being a passing illusion. The key to this was the magnet of attraction that is the EU, proving how effective and dynamic EU enlargement can be.

And this is why we in Britain are so enthusiastic about Enlargement. Cynics have said that we are fans purely because we seek to dilute and weaken the EU. Well, I see that as simply not true. Being a good European is not about signing up to a directive we know we cannot transpose, it’s not about simply nodding through Commission proposals and looking good - no, it’s about entrenching fundamental democratic rights - rights that we perhaps take for granted, but nevertheless rights that citizens from around the world look at in envy. It’s about looking beyond the EU, reaching out to these neighbours and welcoming any European country that meets the accession criteria with open arms.

In addition to peace and stability it also brings prosperity both to the accession country and the wider EU with greater markets and cultural diversity.

So that is why we greatly look forward to Turkey, Croatia, Iceland the Countries of the Western Balkans and of the Eastern partnership joining the EU. But, as I have just said, when they meet the necessary accession criteria

Being a good European isn’t about being good with current EU member states. It’s about being open to all in Europe, and about keeping the door to the EU open to all in Europe.


For me the challenge in the future is how Europe becomes better, and how we - Spain and the UK - enable it to. How do we get EU Institutions fit for a modern purpose, fight climate change, see through the extension of the single market into digital services, and address challenges to competitiveness from Asia and Latin America. For it is these, and not grand statements or treaties, that are the priorities of the people of Europe.

With English and Spanish languages spoken with confidence by close to 30% of the world population we are certainly in a good position. But that will not be enough.

Key challenges ahead begin with bearing down on the EU budget. The EU risks a real challenge to its credibility in the eyes of the European public if it continues to press forward with increases out of all proportion to what is happening to national budgets. We cannot have profligate expenditure in the EU when member states are closing schools, libraries and cutting public sector salaries.

Last week I began the process of taking a Bill through the British Parliament that is designed to address the disconnect which many people in Britain feel with the EU. For this reason the bill aims to give the British people more control over decisions made by the Government in the EU in their name. Some other Member States already have similar controls in place. There is no contradiction in wanting to be active in Europe at the same time as giving our citizens more control. And making Government more accountable in Brussels to the electorate. If EU member state Governments fail to address the disillusion felt by many of their citizens there will be a danger in both further cooperation and integration in the longer term. And a danger that parties of the extremes on both sides of the political spectrum gain support.

I hope that by taking you through our history in Europe I have convinced you to question the hackneyed received wisdom that sometimes floats about the UK approach. It’s just out of date thinking. We’re good Europeans, because we’re one of the most engaged and most attuned to enabling the EU to meet the challenges of today for the benefit of all Europe.

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Published 18 November 2010