Kenneth Clarke: The Tories must stop being afraid of Europe

I fear that some of my colleagues may be fighting the battles of Maastricht and even the Treaty of Rome
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The start of the final negotiations on the EU constitution at the weekend guarantee it as an important topic at the Conservative Party conference that starts today. So far, the constitution has provoked the sort of anguished debate that is unique to Britain. The form is well-known: scaremongering by anti-Europeans then a defensive reaction from Government.

Of course there is an important debate to be had about the merits of a EU constitution. We need a "British" debate accepting the need for a constitution while looking at each proposal on its merits.

What is being proposed will not herald the "end of a thousand years of British history", nor does it justify any other of the hyperbolic claims being made. The current draft constitution is not perfect - there are some areas where I have serious concerns. But a new constitution is necessary.

The constitution cannot answer all the EU's problems. But it can make clear that Europe will be a union of nation states and not what the British call a "federalist" institution. It can define the boundary between those subjects within European competence and those subjects which remain the responsibility of the governments and parliaments of nation states.

The draft constitution already makes clear it is the member states that confer powers on the EU. Article 1 states explicitly, "...this constitution establishes the European Union, on which the member states confer competences to attain objectives they have in common."

I fear some of my colleagues may be fighting the battles of Maastricht and sometimes even the Treaty of Rome. European citizenship, the primacy of EU law, and legal personality are already established principles of the union as it has evolved largely under Conservative governments for more than 25 years.

I believe that Parliament is elected to govern, and when it comes to ratifying this treaty that is what it should do. We are not talking about a constitution for Britain but a new constitutional treaty for a supranational organisation. If we continue to allow the media to press the case for the referendum, we will destroy our tradition of a strong parliamentary democracy.

It is one thing to object to proposals in the constitution. It is another to question the basis of European integration, of which the constitution is the latest stage. Many anti-Europeans have, and I fear some Conservatives mayveer in that direction.

Some suggest the UK take up an "associate membership" of the EU, while proposals for "reserve powers" or to end the supremacy of EU law amount to the same thing. Like calls for "renegotiation", these ideas ultimately amount to withdrawal from the EU - not least because most would require the repeal of the Parliamentary Act passed when we joined the EEC.

Proposals for semi-detached membership could not be achieved. Ideas such as a "supremacy act" asserting the superiority of British law or giving the British courts the power to overrule judgments of the European Court of Justice undermine the universal application of EU law.

Without a universally applicable and enforceable body of EU law, the European single market could not function as it does. An attempt to end the supremacy of EU law in some areas implies we would be happy to see other countries do the same. But this would mean that areas where common legal standards benefit us could also be threatened. It is a recipe for anarchy.

Ultimately, there is no future for Britain as a semi-detached member of the EU - we must choose to be in or out. To turn our backs on the EU would be disastrous for Britain - seriously diminishing our living standards and our place in the world.

The most important political lesson of recent years is that no country can exercise complete sovereignty over all its own affairs. Rejecting the EU would mean losing practical sovereign power. When we debate and negotiate the new constitution, maximising our practical power to influence events must be our main aim.

Some anti-Europeans in Britain still believe we should walk away unless the negotiations on the new treaty get rid of the supra-national personality of the union. They would reject the key strategic alliance that sits on our doorstep. They would risk isolation at the expense of weakening a strong economy and a strong position in the world. They would damage and betray Britain's interests. I would argue that mine is the genuinely patriotic case.

I hope we will have a mature and sensible debate on the new constitution so we can finally settle the issues of the nature of the EU and our role in it. Britain can take up the position as a leading nation state in Europe that is our best route to prosperity and influence in the modern world.

The Conservative case for a new European constitution by Kenneth Clarke, is published today by the Tory Europe Network