Sir John Major’s speech to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation was an interesting step by the Conservatives last night. On the one hand, you have the man who famously gave us the concept 22 years ago of a new vision of Europe with “Britain, France and Germany all clearly in the centre of it, working for the future of the community”. He was standing next to the then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and his speech came shortly after he head taken the leadership of the Conservatives by appealing to the Tory right. You really couldn’t imagine David Cameron delivering a similar speech standing next to Angela Merkel
This time he brought a mixture of messages about needing to temper the war of words about Britain’s place in Europe with a threat that the British public were close to demanding a departure from Europe. The context of this speech is of course the thing to look at. David Cameron’s government has promised a referendum if it wins a majority election, although the rise of UKIP does threaten the likelihood of that actually happening in 2015 as it splinters the traditional Tory vote.
So on the one level, this can be seen as a measure of how seriously the British Conservatives are pushing for their agenda in Europe, by having possibly the most famously pro-European ex-Prime Minister of all deliver a stern warning on ambivalence towards Europe. Attention is of course easy to shine on the issue of free movement within Europe – its part of the rallying cry of UKIP and the Daily Mail faction that we are being overrun by economic migrants. It’s one of the hot button topics that plays well to the British media when you mention a seven percent population rise that is allegedly fuelled by migration.
But look closer at the speech and you’ll see a second strand, one that both attempts to keep a simmer on the boiling pot of the war of words and to open up the real areas that the British government wants to discuss. The clues come in the discussions about the economy – which has itself been a focus of attention with the recent furore over EU payment demands because the British economy has done better than expected.
Sir John said in his speech that advanced economies, like Britain, needed fresh, skilled workers to power that economy – but the sheer numbers of people choosing to come and work here was putting strains on national infrastructure that were unexpected – hence the calls for controls. These controls, he says, are not to stop the flow of migrants, but to give the UK a chance to adapt – just as it has adapted to every wave of migration for thousands of years.
This is where it gets interesting. The right to freedom of movement is seen as sacred by many prominent Europeans, and it has to be restated here that there are just as many British nationals who take advantage of it to head out into Europe. What Sir John delicately points out is that the right to freedom of movement is not the only core value at the heart of the 1957 Treaty of Rome. There are four – the free movement of people, capital, goods and services. His argument is that as the other three rights have not been fully implemented, there is no reason to hold the movement of people as unassailable.
What would prompt the Conservatives to get serious about the other three rights? Commercial growth of UK business, and especially of the reach of the Financial sector, which of course has long been a bone of contention between the UK and its European partners. So follow the money, as ever, when looking at national politics. There’s a scare being thrown up here to make headlines, but the real conversations about the future of Europe have now been framed, so expect the voice of business to keep guiding this conversation.