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Europe is an issue that seems to reverse all stereotypes within the Conservative Party. It turns the tough into the defeated, while making the most robust of patriots appear terribly uncertain and nervous in the face of competing nations. Contrary to Tory myths the Euro-realists are actually the toughies, not intimidated by different languages and negotiating techniques, but are out there happy to fight for Britain’s role at the heart of the debate about the future of Europe.

The problem for the Conservative Party is that recently the Europe debate has been framed around some very un-Conservative views. We should always be realists, and the fundamentally realistic position is that whether we like it or not we are geographically part of this diverse continent called Europe. We need to accept that fact and that means whatever happens in Europe, good or bad, impacts us, whatever our relationship. Europe is US not THEM in terms of institutions, risks and opportunities.

So if Europe is US not THEM then I find it difficult to reconcile with some Euro-sceptic or ‘UK versus EU’ negotiators, who argue that the ‘bad’ relationship that we are forced to endure with our dastardly European partners can be substituted for harmonious polygamous alliances with every other country – as long as they are not European! If you are the real ruthless self-interested hotshot then you play with all the membership organisations that you are lucky enough to be part of and make everyone feel that you are committed to their game. You certainly do not try and frame yourself as the ‘Odd Man Out’ – that is a tactic that is guaranteed to fail.

Relationships are really difficult on a one to one basis – never mind with 27 partners. No one should think that it is easy to achieve what you want in this multi-dimensional game of chess. Yet despite this we have to play to Britain’s strength internationally. We have a great and substantiated reputation as an influential player, talking a lead in shaping international organisations – and that includes Europe too. Let’s not forget that the UK led the way on the Single Market, a model that other organisations around the world have since attempted to replicate – from ASEAN through to ECOWAS.

We must not delude ourselves either that other organisations do not come with serious responsibilities. We herald NATO as the perfect organisation, but it would be interesting to explain to constituents that our obligations include sending our young soldiers to the Turkish border to defend that nation. So let’s not be romantic and remember that all our other valued international ‘relationships’ come with commitments or difficult obligations.

Europe is much more of an opportunity than a risk and it is important as an institution to protect our businesses. Whether it be fighting for product standards in Europe that reflect our high standards in quality and safety or addressing international migration, economic trade and wider European security, Britain has both a voice and a vision.

We therefore have to ask ourselves “What have the Europeans ever done for us?” (remembering that we are one of them). We are a member of one of the most highly sort out clubs in the world – with an aggregated economy bigger than America’s or China’s. It is not bad for our British businesses that we can access a consumer market of 500 million, that our products and services can move effortlessly across all these markets and that British people can move, work and live with few barriers in any EU country.

So Conservatives now have to ask what we might do for Europe. We need to take our head out of discussing the internal workings of EU institutions and start developing a new ambitious vision for Europe. This vision must address the lack of competitiveness, extend and expand our trading horizons and build a strong regional body that can influence a world that is going to be more and more ruthless in the future.

I know that other members of the European Mainstream group, that was recently formed to articulate a positive Conservative attitude to Europe, are pleased that the Conservative Party leadership know how much can be gained from a strong, robust, but collegiate, voice in Europe. And so far we have not done at all badly with the Prime Minister achieving the first EVER reduction in the EU Budget.

Within the Party our biggest challenge is to persuade others that, contrary to perceived wisdom, Britain is not a downtrodden country in Europe, but a leading reformer whose voice and interests are frequently dominant. We need have no identity crisis about our membership of Europe or feel that we are in any way diminished by sitting at the top table of the largest trading bloc in the world. We just have a lot of work ahead to help shape a new and ambitious Europe as much for our national interest as for the rest of our European partners.

Laura Sandys is the Member of Parliament for South Thanet and PPS to the Minister for Climate Change.

Follow Laura on Twitter.


This was the edited version of the speech Laura, convener of the European Mainstream Group, recently made at the Oxford Union.

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