Philip Hampton & Bryan Sanderson: The constitution is dead, but the EU moves on

We have set up a group to articulate pro-European business sentiment in Britain
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The Independent Online

A year ago today, the Constitutional Treaty was defeated in the Netherlands, having been defeated three days before in France. British pro-Europeans, who had prepared for a UK referendum, were left to watch and reflect on these momentous results - some with relief, others with frustration.

Now that a year has passed, it is a good time to review what happened and to discuss charting a way forward. The first lesson that can be learned from the referenda is that Europe still provokes strong opinions on all sides. The turnout in France was 70 per cent, and in the Netherlands 63 per cent. People felt the urge to vote on measures affecting the balance of power between the nation state and the EU. Second, the results in France and the Netherlands sent a significant message to the EU, but at the same time were blurred. Voters registered their views not only on the text, but according to the context.

The events of 12 months ago are consigned to the past. In the immediate aftermath of the No votes, many insisted that ratification of the Constitution should continue at all costs. Those who dared to suggest that a likely domino effect of serial rejections could be fatal were treated with some scorn.

Happily, those urging other EU member states to plough ahead with further referendums in the face of almost certain defeat have not prevailed. EU leaders did not rush like lemmings into ever-deeper crisis. Instead, a consensus has emerged around a new agenda of policy reform and delivery, before any new attempt to solve the institutional conundrum. While few believe institutional reform can be put off forever, it is now widely accepted that Europe must first prove its effectiveness on issues of key concern to its people before seeking consent for further progress on the EU's Treaties.

The Hampton Court summit during Britain's EU presidency last year revealed a surprising level of agreement that issues such as energy, migration, research and defence are the subjects which demand urgent attention. On climate change, there is huge potential for countries in Europe to co-operate over energy policy and to work towards a supply that is both secure and more environmentally friendly.

Significant milestones have been set out, on which Europe can focus. The first of these is the review of the single market announced by the European Commission. Twenty years after the single market was established, its impact has been immense. It is time for a comprehensive review of its functioning and to close its remaining loopholes. Certainly, the agreement reached on Monday on the services directive, aimed at creating a single market in services across Europe, is an extremely positive step.

The second milestone is the political declaration, also proposed by Jose Manuel Barroso, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. This is an important opportunity to affirm a modern, reforming direction of the EU. It should not be a collection of warm words, but a clear manifesto for action. Third, a new group of European leaders is emerging who are looking at Europe in a fresh light. Since becoming Chancellor of Germany in November 2005, Angela Merkel has hit the ground running, while the French will be electing a new president next year. Whoever France's new leader may be, their task will be to redefine the country's role in Europe, enabling France to be a forward-looking force in the EU.

Finally, there is the budget review agreed at the climax of the EU presidency last year. We have to move from a situation whereby 40 per cent of the EU budget is spent on agriculture. The comprehensive review of the budget can itself be a major prize.

Now Europe must use it to the full. If properly executed, it is a chance for the re-founding of the EU which Mrs Merkel has called for. The German presidency in 2007 offers another opportunity to work towards what Mrs Merkel recently called a "Europe that has the power to act".

In Britain, meanwhile, the pro-European movement has been reviving. We have set up a new organisation, Business for New Europe, to articulate the pro-European business sentiment in the UK. The twin pillars of the cause are to highlight the benefits of the UK-EU relationship, and to support the case for economic reform. Though they may have misgivings about certain policies, the business leaders involved with Business for New Europe share a positive vision of the EU. Whereas once business and Europe would have been seen as inconsistent, there are now compelling reasons for them to work together for the benefit of the UK, EU and globally.

Philip Hampton (Chairman, J Sainsbury) and Bryan Sanderson (Chairman, Standard Chartered) sit on the Advisory Council of Business for New Europe - www.businessforneweurope.co.uk

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