A group of backbench MPs has written to the Prime Minister urging him to use his much-vaunted speech on Europe tomorrow to push for “bolder leadership focused on projecting Britain’s national interests in EU”. It seeks to remind David Cameron that a “retreat to the fringes” of the EU is not a welcome prospect to his whole party, and that there are those among his colleagues who believe that “disengagement from Europe is profoundly contrary to Britain’s national interests”.
Fifteen Tory MPs have put their names to the letter, which was sent to David Cameron on 15 January. The Financial Times’ Elizabeth Rigby reports  (£) that a further ten MPs endorsed the letter under the condition that their names would remain anonymous, fearing the “virulent anti-European sentiment in their local associations”.
The letter argues that in many ways – “economic reform, deregulation, competition, trade and the environment” – the EU has been shaped by positive British leadership and that when the UK demonstrates “energetic leadership and vision” we can achieve great things without the need to resort to constant discussion about retreat or withdrawal. The reference to the fact that such things are achieved with the “help of strong allies and continued goodwill” reads as a not-so-oblique criticism of the bridge-burning, confrontational rhetoric sometimes espoused by Eurosceptic Conservative MPs.
The signatories also express concern about a possible “over-emphasis in your speech on renegotiation and a referendum rather than leadership”, and fears that renegotiation would “potentially endanger Margaret Thatcher’s defining European legacy”.
When I spoke to Robert Buckland this afternoon, one of the MPs who put his name to the letter, he said that he was “hopeful” that the Prime Minister would have taken the letter into consideration when putting the final touches to his speech:
“Tomorrow, I’m looking for a sense of purpose, and a sense of how far we’ve come in the history of our relations with the EU. The Prime Minister has a strong sense of history – even if some say otherwise – and I’m looking forward to a positive speech that reflects concerns, but also reaffirms our continued commitment to being in the EU.”
He also told me that he believes the letter “reflects even wider opinion in the Parliamentary party”.
“The vast majority of MPs aren’t exactly what you’d call Europhile, but I believe they would support our continuing membership of the EU and I’m sure they are sensible and pragmatic rather than wishing to exit.”
While it’s encouraging to find a group of Conservative backbenchers making the case for a critical but positive relationship with the EU, it’s difficult to see their demands being met with any great enthusiasm from the Prime Minister. Tomorrow’s speech, then, has an important peace-making function to perform within the Conservative Parliamentary Party, as well as an agenda to set on the EU. With all that to do in one speech, it’s little wonder the PM put it off for so long.
You can read the full text of the letter below, first published on the Centre for British Influence's Tumblr :
The Rt Hon David Cameron MP
The Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
15th January 2013
Dear Prime Minister,
The Eurozone crisis has given added strength to a growing number of voices calling for Britain to either withdraw from the EU or retreat to the fringes. This view, often perceived as the default position of our Party, not only challenges official Conservative policy but also fails to reflect the views of many, including those names below, who believe that disengagement from Europe is profoundly contrary to Britain’s national interests.
We acknowledge the EU’s shortcomings and understand the desire and, under the Lisbon Treaty the possibility, to repatriate powers. However, we do our nation, as well as Europe, a disservice by not confidently exerting the same level of engagement and leadership as we demonstrate in organisations such as NATO, the G8, the UN Security Council or the Commonwealth.
When Britain does engage we get positive results. Many of the core features of today’s EU are thanks to British leadership. The Single Market is the creation of Margaret Thatcher and enlargement was the key legacy of John Major. Both helped create world’s biggest trading area which has enabled the UK to become the number one destination in Europe for foreign direct investment. From economic reform, deregulation, competition, trade and the environment, the EU is now following a policy agenda largely fashioned by the UK. Far from being perpetually isolated, we should stress that such an outcome has been achieved by the UK with the help of strong allies and continued goodwill.
The completion of the Single Market requires our energetic leadership and vision. Your Single Market letter of March 2012 is now supported by 18 member states. This is a manifesto for reform which would dwarf the adverse impact of those EU regulations which for many, through media reportage, is their only understanding of Britain’s EU experience. The rhetoric surrounding European integration misleads British MPs and media and thus thwarts a clear-headed British approach. The gap in understanding should be filled by a realistic and positive British vision for leadership in Europe based on the peace we have established through NATO, the prosperity we have created through the Single Market and the power we can leverage through our global relationships.
We are concerned that an over-emphasis in your speech on renegotiation and a referendum rather than leadership could undermine the Single Market. The UK has potential allies on many key issues, even on the merits of repatriating some powers. We fear that a renegotiation which seems to favour the UK alone would force other capitals to ask why they cannot simply dispense with those parts of the Single Market that don’t suit them, potentially endangering Margaret Thatcher’s defining European legacy. Senior business figures don’t want the UK to play a lesser role in the EU. They fear, as we know you do, the danger to British business and jobs of the UK being on the wrong side of a tariff barrier which could fatally undermine our government’s policy of rebalancing the economy so that we boost manufacturing and reduce unemployment.
We therefore advocate a cultural shift towards a bolder leadership focused on projecting Britain’s national interests in EU decision-making and encouraging other member states to support us in the process. It is regrettable that we could even contemplate a role equivalent to countries such as Norway and Switzerland. We hope that your speech will deal directly with these false choices and re-establish a sensible policy of positive leadership in Europe that we want - and that our country and indeed the continent needs now more than ever.
If you decide to give the British people a referendum, we will be supporting you, not only in making the case for continued membership of the EU, but in enhancing our leadership both in Brussels and the capitals of Europe, in the national interest, namely completing the Single Market, attracting foreign direct investment into the UK and exercising our strategic value in the eyes of our allies, particularly the United States. Like you, we want to be in Europe - for Britain.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind