WRITING FOR POLITICSHOME, THE LEADER OF CONSERVATIVE MEPS RICHARD ASHWORTH CHALLENGES HIS PARTY TO SHOW ‘VISION AND LEADERSHIP’ IN REFORMING THE UK’S RELATIONSHIP WITH EUROPE.
The European Union is facing its greatest challenge in more than 50 years.
Debt, doubt, and decline have had a crippling effect. Joblessness and hopelessness have given rise to a sense of pointlessness. People begin to wonder just what Europe is for.
But as well as an enormous challenge, this crisis also presents us with a unique opportunity to put right the things that have gone so badly wrong.
The EU cannot be blamed for all Europe's problems. The irresponsible behaviour in the banking sector cannot be blamed on Brussels. Neither can the public debt which so many member states racked up - including Britain under Labour. Nor is the wider global recession all Europe's fault
But some of our problems ARE the fault of the EU.
A prime example is the very way the Euro itself was introduced. The single currency was always a political project instead of a fiscal instrument. It was fatally flawed from the start because it could only ever have worked work alongside fiscal consolidation and greater political union. If its architects had admitted this from the start, the likes of Greece and Portugal would never have been allowed to join - and so much grief would have been avoided.
Look, too, at the EU's slow response to the crisis. With its various institutions lacking co-ordination, direction and credibility, the EU has not had the tools to do the job. Attempts to tackle the crisis have been too little and too late - one step behind the markets and one stage removed from the public mood. The EU is institutionally incapable - literally so - of doing what is needed.
As a consequence, millions of Europeans now see the EU in a negative light. Rightly or wrongly, they see it as the cause of the problems rather the solution.
Perhaps worse, the immediate problems of the recession and the banking crisis are masking the longer-term issues which are common to us all...and chief among those is competitiveness.
My fear is that once we solve the surface problems - and that will happen eventually - people will only then realise they were a distraction all along from the crisis of competitiveness. That is the REAL threat, the deep-rooted menace to Europe's prosperity.
Countries such as China, India and Brazil have transformed their economies and their place in the global order - all in in less time than it takes a child to go through school. The world is changing rapidly, but we in Europe are not. So, serious questions must be asked about whether Europe - and most specifically Mediterranean Europe - has the ability, the culture and perhaps even the will to meet that competitive challenge. In some countries, to do so would mean transforming utterly people's expectations, their approach to work and taxation, and their very way of live.
Because of all this - not in spite it - this crisis offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity. For the 17 Eurozone countries, the opportunity to address its problems once and for all. For the 10 non-Euro countries, including us in Britain, the chance to redefine our relationship with Europe.
Within the Eurozone, the solution has to involve greater integration. In a monetary union - and the pound is a perfect example - you can only have one control, one set of rules and one level of taxation.
It is vital for Britain as well as for Europe that the Euro survives. In the future some countries may wish to join the Eurozone, while others may choose to leave or even be expelled.
In whatever shape the Eurozone survives, that survival will mean more integration. But the message from British Conservatives must be: "You integrate if you want to .... we're not for joining."
We won't be joining the Euro; we won't be joining a federalised Europe.
But what British Conservatives do want - what we will insist upon - is a central trading relationship within the single market. We should also acknowledge the good sense of sharing environmental regulation and opportunities - after all, pollution, ecology, wildlife and the weather do not observe political boundaries.
We equally see the benefits of joint investment in new technologies, in the cutting-edge research and scientific development that will get Europe's economic engine motoring again.
But we will not accept the transfer of our sovereignty or the appropriation of our national freedom.
Mr Cameron will need to be particularly robust in the coming months, particularly at the November Council when he must not be afraid to use the British veto to reinforce our position.
For Britain, be clear; the road forward is not about turning back the pages of history and starting out again 70 years ago, as UKIP would wish.
Their argument is a seductive one, but it does not bear too much intellectual scrutiny.
Their voices are loud, but nobody serves Britain's best interest by being endlessly negative or obsessively introspective and hypercritical.
The two most-beneficial step-changes for the EU, the single market and the expansion of the EU, were the product of the drive, vision and leadership of the British Conservative party. That was a Britain that was visionary, positive and confident. A Conservative Party that gave leadership to our nation and direction to Europe.
Europe needs our vision and leadership now more than ever before. So I ask - can we provide that leadership? Are we still the party we were?
Richard Ashworth is the leader of Britain's Conservative MEPs.