It is time to stand up to Tory euroscepticism

Disengagement or withdrawal would be disastrous for British influence and interests.

Something fundamental has changed in the nature of the British debate about Europe over the last 15 years. The last time the Conservatives were in power the division in the party was between those, like John Major, who wanted to remain “at the heart of Europe” and those who sought to renegotiate our membership in order to repatriate large areas of policy from the EU.  Today, the dividing line is between those who want to pick apart even the foundations of the single market and those demanding complete withdrawal.  Damaging disengagement is the new consensus within the Conservative Party – the only disagreements are about scale and timing.

The need to restate the case for our membership of the EU has therefore never been more pressing.  It has also never been more difficult.  The eurozone crisis has undermined confidence in Europe’s ability to act as a force for stability and prosperity, and the instinctive and understandable reaction of many is to pull back.  But the crisis has also revealed the extent of our interdependence with Europe.  The idea that political disengagement will insulate us from the economic problems of our continental neighbours is pure fantasy.  Our national interest lies in arguing for a reformed EU from the inside.

Globalisation has provided many opportunities for businesses and individuals alike, but it has also brought new challenges that even the largest and most powerful countries cannot solve on their own.  Climate change, global economic instability, cross border crime, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and energy security all pose significant risks for our society and our way of life. Dealing with these issues requires international cooperation on an unprecedented scale.

What is needed is joint decision-making and legal enforcement of the kind pioneered by the EU given that global agreements have fallen woefully short of the mark. Compare the success of the EU in driving up environmental standards in Europe with the failure to get sufficient agreement on halting climate change at a global level. Compare the deepening of trade ties within the European single market with the more limited progress made through the World Trade Organisation.

That is why the anti-European arguments espoused by different wings of the Conservative Party deserve closer scrutiny than ever before. The extreme wing of the Conservative Party advocates complete withdrawal from EU membership and the negotiation of separate bilateral trading relationship that would provide access to European markets.  The two examples most commonly cited are Norway and Switzerland.  Both countries certainly have strong economic ties to the rest of Europe, but neither enjoys anything like the freedom from EU laws and regulations that anti-Europeans want us to believe.

Norway belongs to the European Economic Area, which gives non-EU countries access to the single market.  But in exchange for that access, Norway has to adhere to the rules of the single market, including those relating to social and employment policy.  The only substantive difference is that its government has no say over how those rules are formed. It even has to contribute to the EU budget.

Switzerland has a little more flexibility with its mix and match approach defined through a series of bilateral agreements. But the essential principle is exactly the same - the more access it wants to the single market, the more EU legislation it has to transpose without having any say over its content.  For both countries the "democratic deficit" and loss of influence are a result of their non-membership.

The supposedly more moderate and modern wing of the Conservative Party would like to reduce our membership of the EU to a purely trade-based relationship. In this vein, Liam Fox recently argued for a return to the Common Market arrangement the UK first joined in 1973.  Taken literally, this would mean unscrambling the entire single market programme and allowing our competitors to re-impose non-tariff barriers against us.

More broadly, there are great dangers in unpicking the largest internal market in the world.  If we asserted as a matter of principle that countries only have to stick to the rules they like, some might choose to opt-out of limitations on state aids, the requirement to offer public contracts to competitive tender or any among thousands of other market-opening rules required by the EU.  The single market would start to unravel and British exporters would suffer.

The UK is a large member state and should be a strong proponent for an open and reformed EU. That can only be achieved by being at the heart of the Europe, not stranded on the sidelines. Even against the backdrop of the eurozone crisis, it is vital that pragmatic, pro-reform, pro-Europeans now make their voices heard and underline the risks of damaging disengagement or withdrawal that would undermine British influence and interests.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following a European Union summit at the EU headquarters. Photograph: Getty Images.

Emma Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and former shadow Europe minister.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.