UK policy in Europe

Speech by Minister for Europe David Lidington, delivered at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin.

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

Thank you Daithi for that introduction.

It is a privilege to be here amongst so many distinguished guests who have contributed so much to relations between our two countries, such as former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald who was one of the pioneers of reconciliation between Ireland and the UK, at a time when it was a difficult furrow to plough, but with which he created great friendship and great trust.

I was in the Dail earlier today, and greatly appreciated the tone and generous spirit of the all party motion welcoming the Saville report and I will draw this to the Prime Minister’s attention on my return to London.

I am delighted to once again be here in Dublin. I’ve just come from a very positive meeting with Dick Roche, and have spoken to Enda Kenny. I also met members of the Joint Committee on European Affairs in the Dail.

I’m particularly pleased to be able to speak on Europe at this renowned and respected Institute. The list of speakers you have welcomed here is remarkable: Prime Ministers and Presidents; leading academics and great thinkers; as well as EU Commissioners and a former Secretary General of the UN.
Last year you invited the Liberal Democratic Peer, Lord Wallace, former head of Chatham House. He stood here and gave a speech entitled: “Does Britain Have a European Policy?”

Well I’m here today to give a categorical “yes” in answer to that question. And I hope that after today no one in this room will be in any doubt about the Coalition Government’s approach to Europe and what we intend to achieve.
Might I also add how delighted I am to that Lord Wallace is now part of the Coalition Government - as a whip and occasional foreign affairs spokesman in the Lords.

In addition to outlining the UK government’s policy on Europe, I’d like also to briefly touch on how Britain and Ireland can work more closely together within Europe to ensure that our membership delivers the results that our electorates expect.
Almost every visiting speaker from the UK is going to talk about the complicated, intertwined and extensive ties that bind our two nations. I think those links and our complicated intertwined histories are well understood - but the importance of those links should never be taken for granted.
Ireland is our fifth largest export market and we export more to Ireland than we do to the so called BRIC countries. The UK, for its part, is Ireland’s largest trading partner, with exports to the UK totalling more than those to France, Germany and Italy combined. So at a time when both our countries are focussed on trying to deliver growth and export led economic recovery - these economic links are vital.

Ours are both open economies - attractive to inward investors looking for an educated workforce, stable government and a business platform from which to export to the rest of Europe and beyond.
And we continue to cooperate ever more closely in areas such as energy - and have increasingly interconnected electricity grids to allow both the importation and exportation of energy as needed.

And the people of Ireland and the UK are linked in ways that few other countries can match. This goes well beyond the 200 direct flights a day and the countless ferry and road passengers who go back and forth on business or pleasure.
There are our shared values; shared cultures and personal and family histories that have allowed the transformation of the relationship between our two countries in recent years.

I gained some first-hand experience of this during my time shadowing Northern Ireland when I came to Dublin regularly for meetings with political leaders, commentators and business representatives. It is a real pleasure for me now to come back here in my ministerial capacity.
I believe the UK and Ireland can genuinely point to our having a strong and modern partnership. One which understands and acknowledges our history, including the mistakes made - but does not allow the problems of the past to get in the way of co-operation.

I am delighted to see the recent progress in the political process in Northern Ireland. The devolution of policing and justice in April and the appointment of David Ford as the Justice Minister are significant steps towards cementing permanently the gains that have been made. The publication of the Saville Report into the events of Bloody Sunday also represents a further part of the healing process as come to terms with the difficult issues of the past.
This new relationship, coupled with the strong personal ties shared between our two countries, are going to be more important in a world where problems - and their hoped for solutions - are increasingly global in character.

The new Coalition Government in London has brought a different and distinctive approach to British foreign policy. One that recognises just how inter-connected the world has become - which recognises too that if we are successfully to champion our country’s interests, then we must engage fully and productively on a global scale.

We believe that engagement with the European Union is an essential part of that global engagement. William Hague made it clear before the general election that a new government would take an active and energetic approach to the EU. I think few would deny that we have done that from the start. From the Prime Minister down, we have been busy meeting our counterparts in Europe and holding substantive discussions on some of the serious challenges that we face.
This includes of course the positive and friendly meeting which took place last week between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in London, during which they discussed the recent European Council and how our two countries can co-operate in Europe.

Of course one of the most recognisably distinctive features of the new government is that it is a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. While coalition governments are a familiar feature for many of our European partners, including of course for Ireland, this is the first coalition of any sort we’ve had in the UK since 1945. And the first peace time coalition since the 1930s. I know that some of our European partners, especially Belgian and Dutch colleagues, have been surprised at how quickly we formed the coalition. This was not just because of the urgency to show international financial markets that Britain had a stable government, but because the Queen was also firmly booked to open parliament!

Despite our two parties having traditionally approached the EU from different ideological positions - it was not difficult to find agreement on the fundamentals.
The Coalition’s Programme for Government contains a specific section on Europe and policy. It commits this government to playing a leading role in an enlarged Europe, and to taking specific measures to ensure future decisions on Europe reflect the will of the British public.
As the Prime Minister said in Brussels after this month’s EU Council meeting: “There are things we can do at the European level that are important and in Britain’s interests”. Our trade with European partners; the access that we have to the EU’s open markets; and ensuring European competitiveness are vital for future British prosperity.

The Coalition also agreed that the EU and its institutions already has all the competences it needs to deliver for member states on the big issues where the EU collectively can add value. On issues like global competitiveness, global warming, global poverty, and others - what the EU needs more than anything else is the political will to turn policy into action.

So our Programme for Government says that there should be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers from Westminster to Brussels over the course of the next Parliament. It also commits us to introducing legislation to ensure that any proposed future Treaty or Treaty change which includes transfers of power or competences from the UK to the EU would be subject to a referendum - as of course is already the case here in Ireland.
I recognise that in Dublin, more than anywhere else in Europe, you will recognise that having a legal requirement for referendums does not necessarily make life easy for governments. But we are absolutely certain that it is the right thing for the UK.
We see today a democratic disconnect between the people of the UK and EU institutions and decisions taken on behalf of British people which we need to put right. In the latest Euro-barometer results, collected in 2009, only 23% of the UK public were prepared to say they trusted the EU and only 36% thought UK membership was a good thing.

The legitimacy of the EU ultimately derives from the people who live in its member states. Giving those people a direct say on any future transfer of power from the UK to European institutions therefore essential to ensure long term legitimacy of the EU.
Similarly, it is important that the EU focuses only on those areas where cooperation at European level genuinely can add value, and dispenses with activities best left to member states. Doing that effectively and consistently would do a considerable amount to reassure people that the EU can be responsive to their concerns and that it doesn’t interfere in every corner of national life. I believe that it is hard, for instance, to argue that there needs to be European level regulation over the hours that doctors work in each member state. Such regulation discredits everyone when it has an adverse affect on public services - in this case, patient care.

But as important as these issues are, the most immediate and pressing area for the EU to focus on at the moment is - of course - the economy.
If the economies of Europe are to thrive and prosper in future, we must ensure they remain competitive and open for business.
If we look at the past 10 years, China’s growth has averaged 9.9% - with India’s not far behind at 7%. During that same period, growth in the EU averaged just 1.7%. We can’t just shrug our shoulders and accept that level of disparity.

Europe has huge advantages: some of the world’s most highly skilled workers, operating for the most technologically advanced companies, within the world’s largest single market. We need to build on these advantages to promote growth and remain competitive.
And the first thing European governments have to do is take steps to reduce national deficits. Like Ireland, the UK has now embarked on a sustained programme of deficit reduction as part of a wider programme of national economic reform.

The emergency budget which George Osborne announced on the 22 of June outlined the measures we will take to achieve this. They are going to be difficult, that will require difficult decisions on taxation and spending. But necessary to deliver the growth and jobs that are vital for our economic well being.
Different governments across Europe are taking their own measures to ensure their national economies too are fit for the future. But I believe there are also steps that the EU as a whole must take. If you look at the world beyond the immediate financial crisis, EU competitiveness had been eroded compared to the Gulf States, China, India and beyond. If we further this erosion we condemn future generations to lower living standards. So what should the EU do?
First and foremost, the countries of Europe must act to promote growth and jobs. We believe strengthening the Single Market is the best way to achieve this and will push for its extension.

We are going to push for better regulation to lighten the burdens on business and breakdown the barriers for commerce in Europe. And for the EU to seize every opportunity to create freer and fairer trade between the EU and third countries. Free trade has been one of the greatest successes of the European Union - and there are further benefits still to be won.

Within the Single Market we can see real opportunities to boost growth by opening up further the energy and services sectors, developing a single market on the digital economy and by moving forward on patents making a positive difference to EU businesses. Mario Monti’s recent report on re-launching the Single Market contained many good proposals: we should look to build on these.

Much of the EU’s future growth is likely to be found in trade with the emerging economies around the world - so the British Government is going to work to encourage greater economic and political engagement between the EU and the world’s rising economic and political powers.
Many of these ideas are contained in the new Europe 2020 strategy for economic growth that was agreed by EU heads of state at this month’s European Council. It’s a strategy that rightly focuses on jobs; on smart and sustainable inclusive growth by boosting competitiveness; on productivity; and on growth potential.

Europe 2020 focuses on many of the right priorities. But if we are honest with ourselves we will also admit that we have seen European strategies come and go in the past with few concrete results. It is vital that this one actually delivers. We have to show our peoples EU progress on what really matters to them and their families - jobs and growth.
For the sake of both our economies - we simply can’t afford to see Europe 2020 languish on the Commission’s websites as some aspirational document that never leads anywhere.

As we all know, the most pressing and immediate issue facing the European Union is the crisis in the Eurozone.
We should spell out clearly where the British Government is coming from. We have no plans to join the Euro. But we want the Euro zone to do well. Its members are some of our closest friends and alias. Britain has chosen to stay out of the Euro - but we recognise it is important to our national interests for the Eurozone to be strong and successful. 40% of our exports go to countries that use the Euro, it is clearly in our interests support efforts to make the Eurozone more stable and more capable of dealing with the difficulties it faces.

More broadly, we know that the EU is at its best when it delivers tangible economic benefits to its citizens. The EU must capitalise on its position as the world’s largest multi-lateral trading bloc. As a trading area, the EU is larger than the US and Japan combined. We need to take full advantage of the opportunities that this brings for both European businesses and European consumers.

So we’re clear that the countries of the EU should act to ensure the Union is economically stable and prosperous. That is right in itself, but it is also necessary as through our economic strength we will build our global influence.
The EU, when it comes together in the right way, can tackle global problems like climate change, the scourge of poverty or nuclear proliferation.
Now, it is crucial for our collective interests that the EU’s member states have some say on issues as important as these. This British Government simply does not accept that the rise of emerging powers such as China and India means that European nations must accept a corresponding drop in their own global influence.

Our common interests are served when the nations of the EU use their collective weight in the world to promote our shared interests and shared values. But to achieve this will take a greater determination and a greater consistency of effort over the delivery of our foreign policy goals than we have been previously shown.

We want EU member states to show leadership in tackling international climate change. Britain therefore supports an increase in the EU’s emissions reduction targets from 20 to30 % without waiting for comparable offers from other countries. The EU can show leadership globally by making progress on delivering climate finance to developing countries; by co-ordinating our outreach to the emerging economies, and by accelerating the transition to a low carbon economy.
Taking that action now is in our interests because it will put us in the position to enable our economies to take full advantage of the new green jobs and growth that are being created, as well as promoting both energy security for Europe and a sustained economic recovery.

In addition, EU member states must to work to find common ground on other important issues - as we did on Iran at the European Council meeting last week. In London we were pleased with the strong, unequivocal declaration on Iran that was issued. The Iranian nuclear programme is a challenge to every member of the EU and an issue on which the nations of Europe have a strong shared interest.
It is important that the EU is able to show it can deliver results. We want a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear programme - but part of that must mean that we must not equivocate if the time comes for the EU to introduce further sanctions.
On development - we will press to see the EU as a whole meet its commitment to delivering 0.7% of GDP in international development assistance by 2015. Even in difficult times for us, we should be resolute about supporting countries in which being poor is actually life threatening, rather than just about the quality of life.

And on our own doorsteps, the EU must not loose sight of the enormous benefits that our enlargement policy has brought and can bring in the future.
Enlargement has been a remarkable achievement for the EU.
Europe has never been as free or as stable as it is today. The policy of enlargement has spread democracy and good governance across Europe. It has shown the EU at its best. If you want to single out just one historic achievement of the EU, it has been to entrench democracy - in the Iberian Peninsula, in Greece, in Central and Eastern Europe.

We believe there are more benefits to be gained by further enlargement -to Turkey and the countries of the Western Balkans - as those countries strive for, and eventually meet, the criteria for membership.
The prospect of EU membership remains a uniquely powerful force for good in the Western Balkans - a region which is still scarred by the conflicts of the 1990s. There is a delicate political stability now in place, but it is not firmly embedded. As I saw for myself in Macedonia and Kosovo last week. The prospect of EU (and NATO) membership as an unparalleled opportunity to ensure stability and enhance prosperity.

The difficult steps towards meeting the conditions set by the EU will require real political leadership from all countries of the region. The international community needs to sharpen its focus on the Western Balkans taking an active, determined and results-focused approach. How the EU responds to the often complicated issues in the Balkans will be a defining measure of the EU’s ability and willingness to be a force for good in the world. If we want people to regard EU common foreign and security policy as something meaningful then we have to translate this into progress in the Western Balkans.
Similarly, the British Government is clear about the benefits of Turkey’s continued progress towards membership. These are not just benefits for Turkey, as it strives for and meets the membership criteria - but for all existing members of the Union. Turkey is going to be one of the emerging economies and there are clear gains to be had from having Turkish economic dynamism and geo-political outreach within the European Union.
I’ve covered a wide range of issues today. I wish I had time to go into greater detail but I wanted to illustrate for you the active and activist approach that the Cameron Government has when it comes to Europe.

I know also that the UK and Ireland approach many of these issues from a similar perspective. And I know that our bilateral relationship has been transformed over the past generation, there is also a huge amount to be gained in promoting our common interests, our shared values and in working together on practical policy issues.

On immediate practical policy issues such as financial services reform and better regulation, the visions are closely aligned. There is a great deal more we can to do co-operate on energy and climate change, and by working to promote the use of renewable sources across these islands.
So I would like the UK and Ireland to cooperate to further in developing our shared outlook towards the European Union to make the EU a success. Collectively and through our membership of the EU I want us to see how we can - together - make sure that the priority is growth, job creation and that vital work in this area delivers real results to our peoples.

So can I thank the Institute once again for welcoming me here today and I’m happy to take any questions.

Updates to this page

Published 30 June 2010