Ahead of David Cameron's announcement on Conservative policy on Europe, Open Europe has today published the first in a series of papers about what a future Conservative government should prioritise, now that the Lisbon Treaty has been ratified.
In about two hours time Cameron is expected to announce that he will seek to 'repatriate' social and employment legislation from the EU, and promise a referendum on any future transfers of power. Open Europe argues that, if the Conservatives are serious about repatriating powers to member states, then social and employment policy is exactly the right place to start.
However, in order to achieve a strong negotiating mandate and fully address the current problems with EU social policy, the Conservatives must announce a referendum on reform of the status quo. A referendum on future transfers of power will do nothing to address the substantial costs already arising from EU legislation, nor the lack of democratic accountability in this area.
EU social and employment laws have had a massive impact on the UK economy, accounting for 25 percent of the total cost of regulation in the UK over the past decade. Looking ahead, UK laws derived from EU social legislation will cost the British economy more than £71 billion between 2010 and 2020, even if no new laws are passed in that time.
In the briefing paper, Open Europe sets out how the Conservatives should go about achieving repatriation in practice. This includes seeking a strong mandate from voters to strengthen the UK's negotiation position in Brussels, through a referendum on reform.
The potential election of a new Conservative government will coincide with the opening of EU budget negotiations, where discussions will be held about how much each country should pay into the EU over the period 2014 to 2020.
The UK has a veto over these negotiations, and should be prepared to use it to fight for a package of reforms which must be fleshed out between now and the election. A major feature of such a package should be repatriation of social policy.
This package of reforms should be put to the British people in a referendum, with a question along the lines of: "Are you in favour or against withholding agreement to the EU budget until the European Reform Package has been adopted?"
Open Europe Research Director Mats Persson said:
"Given the substantial economic impact of these laws, the Conservatives are absolutely right to make EU social policy a priority. There is a strong practical, economic and democratic case for repatriating powers in this area."
"If the Conservatives succeed in bringing back powers over these policies, it doesn't mean scrapping every workplace right going - it means giving Westminster back the power to keep, scrap or amend these important laws to better suit the UK's individual economic circumstances. This would cut costs and bring these decisions much closer to the people - where they belong."
"Employment policy is best decided nationally, where it reflects different traditions and labour market models, which have evolved as a result of decades of democratic discourse in individual countries. The Conservatives would not be alone in Europe in arguing that centralised rules for such fundamentally different labour markets just don't make sense."
"That said, they will need a powerful mandate for negotiation in Brussels, and holding a referendum on a list of reforms, such as repatriation of social policy, is by far the best way to achieve it. UK voters must get a say on the future of the EU - a mere 'manifesto mandate' simply will not cut it."
Click here to read the briefing: