What instincts and ideas brought us together in the late 1960s? From several countries with different political systems and cultures we students somehow bonded to create ECCS – the European Christian Democrat & Conservative Students, forerunner of EDS.
What was even more remarkable was that the membership came from countries both within the then EEC and others for which membership of that body came much later. The German RCDS were influential, but as the first British Chair we embraced sister organisations from Sweden, Finland and Denmark as well as reaching out to the French Jeune Giscardiens. We even had two representatives from Italy attending a remote conference in the middle of Finland during which our multi-national gathering literally broke the ice.
Many of us later entered our respective Parliaments. Carl Bildt was one of my Vice-Chairmen and he has kept in touch with EDS during his illustrious career. Norbert Lammert was also active – well before he became a President of the Bundestag. We all seemed to share a similar vision – the importance of uniting Western Europe (still threatened by the Cold War) and creating open, liberal, compassionate societies.
We sought (in endless debates fuelled by beer) to understand how to benefit our citizens by sharing attitudes to our common geography, history, political, artistic and scientific culture, as well as strategic and security interests, investment and trade. To learn from each other’s experiences and be respectful of varying political viewpoints for the greater good.
That seems to me still a valid and worthwhile objective – even if so much has changed politically and institutionally in the now 27-member EU. The UK entered and has just – tragically – departed. In a sense, my generation of British pro-Europeans succeeded and then failed. Did we take our achievements for granted?
Those of us in Britain who remain keen to keep our personal links with EU allies must strive to rebuild alliances for the future. Our driving force for this should be the Conservative European Forum (CEF). Crucially, CEF membership is a broad centre-right alliance and includes Conservative Party members as well as those (like me) who have left the Party and are now independent.
We in the CEF have, as the Conservative Group for Europe, for more than 50 years (pre-, during and post-EU membership) championed UK connections with European partners. I have been proud to serve as a former Chair and Patron and long-term member including whilst a Conservative MP and Government Minister.
This Conservative Government is in place for the foreseeable future, so CEF has a key role in supporting those within the Party who still retain positive attitudes to the EU and wish to find ways of re-engaging over time. It is important to hold Prime Minister Johnson to account when he speaks about the United Kingdom as the EU’s “friend, ally [and] supporter” that should stay “strategically” attached to Europe. It was very good to hear Michael Gove’s description of the Brexit agreement as the first step towards a “special relationship” (a phrase no British politician uses lightly) between the UK and EU.
Let us build on that prospect. We can drive a closer relationship with European partners through the following key objectives:
First, CEF can be an advocate within the Conservative Party and among Conservative-minded voters for closer strategic partnerships to strengthen political, economic, social, environmental and security cooperation between the UK and the democracies of Europe, partnerships that include centre-right parties, national governments and the institutions of the European Union. This effort should also embrace closer connections with and between leaders in business and commerce.
Second, we can establish the Forum as a thought leader in the debate that will develop over the months and years ahead about the best form and structure of cooperation between the UK, the EU and the rest of Europe.
Third, we should work to repair and strengthen the relationships between those of us who support the Conservative European Forum’s objectives and the mainstream parties of the centre-right in other European countries.
CEF members are keen to establish closer personal links with like-minded politicians, especially in the EPP, to exchange ideas about tackling shared challenges. Even though in each country the application of policies might differ, we broadly all accept the principles of the social market economy in which members of society have obligations towards each other, freedom as a central human right, coupled with responsibility, respect for traditions and associations and solidarity to help those in need. We can learn from each other’s experience how best to embody those principles in effective policies that change people’s lives for the better.
The whole of Europe faces now common challenges in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic which in addition to its tragic human toll has disrupted and undermined the resilience of key services such as health, social care and education in ways which will have lasting impact on how they are delivered in future. Other big policy debates will be provoked by the ravages and social implications of climate change, the growing social and financial imbalances in an ageing society, inadequate innovation and productivity in our economies, adaptation to new digital technologies, the rise of Asian economies, international security threats both near and far, migrations, terrorism and many other issues.
In response to all these issues, finding common ground and enabling collective action whenever logical is important. Those of us in the UK who see our future still closely aligned with our friends in the EU will strive to keep open our channels for dialogue and exchange of views so that we can improve the quality of our own policies by learning from the experience of others. All this in the long-term interests of the wellbeing of our country and its citizens.
Yet, the main thrust of driving forward this vision now falls on the current generation of young people, especially those in EDS. I have met many of you when addressing your meetings in recent years, so I have no doubt about your abilities, enthusiasm and readiness to engage in constant effort over time. If what we launched in the late 1960s is an inspiration, then I am optimistic. Keep the faith and be ambitious!