Conservative Party conferences are too often overshadowed by Europe. This has, in the recent past, led the leadership to attempts to avoid discussion, clamp down on debate and hope nobody notices. Given the changes currently going on in the eurozone I think it would be a mistake to try that again this year. If the Conservative leadership does not set out a strong narrative it will be in danger of again being held hostage by those who do. So here are three things David Cameron should do to take the initiative and set out a distinctive Conservative position on Europe and three he should not.
Firstly, and most importantly, David Cameron should set out an overall vision of the UK in the EU post-eurozone crisis. This should be based on being in the single market but not in the Euro, with new membership terms that recognise the UK is not headed towards further integration, whatever the speed may be. He should be honest about the need for re-negotiation, the chances of success and the timescale, but set out that as the EU is changing there is no other option - the UK cannot cling to the status quo.
Secondly, he can build credibility for his renegotiations by re-emphasising that the UK will use its right to opt out of 130 crime and policing measures and will not opt back in to any of them while the threat of ECJ jurisdiction remains. He should explain that as the UK is not on route to becoming a part of a unified EU political entity it cannot allow the European Court of Justice to have a role in this sensitive area. He can be open to further cooperation, but given recent history not within the current EU legal structure.
Thirdly, David Cameron should set out the case for a new EU budget that recognises the need for fiscal responsibility and shares the tough decisions being made in some parts of Europe. We have argued before that this should involve the repatriation of regional policy, saving the UK billions, an idea other donor states like Germany would also appreciate. If no reform is initially forthcoming David Cameron should say he will use the UK veto to force the pace.
There are also three things that David Cameron should avoid doing.
Firstly, David Cameron should neither promise an in/out referendum nor rule one out. Promising one will, split the Conservative Party, close down all sensible discussion of reform and potentially lock the UK into an unreformed EU if it votes to stay in. Ruling one out would equally be wrong; we cannot prejudge the UK’s renegotiation of its membership terms nor know the future direction of the EU.
Secondly, David Cameron should avoid talk of Coalitions beyond 2015. On this more than any other subject the Coalition agreement has already been overtaken by events. When the time comes for an election the Conservatives will need their own distinctive policies based on renegotiation and giving people a say. If discussed in the context of a ‘continuity coalition’ they will lack all credibility.
Lastly, he should avoid the pitfalls of insulting those who have strong view on the EU. Terms such as “bastards”, “nutters, fruitcakes and racists”, “head bangers” or simply “nasty” (or as Nick Clegg would have it "insular", "chauvinistic" and "short-sighted") are not only deeply unfair to those who have often been proven right, but will further polarise the debate, acting as a recruiting sergeant for UKIP.
David Cameron should instead reach for the middle ground, and say something like, "I want an EU that concentrates on trade, fiscal responsibility and structural economic reform and want it to stop doing everything else. You want it to stop the EU doing everything else but will need to come to an agreement on trade, so we share a similar end point, the difference being I wish to use this opportunity to see if the EU is capable of reform."