In 2003, before becoming an MP, I was invited to a dinner with Iain Duncan Smith, then our leader, and the leader of the Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczynski – Poland’s undisputed strongman today.
Hardly an enthusiast for ever-closer union, Kaczynski came with a bold and attractive plan. He suggested creating a new grouping of non-federalist conservative parties in Europe, a power block to contain Brussels encroachment on the sovereignty of our nations.
Newcomers to the EU themselves, the Poles wanted us to take a lead. After some debate, we obliged. A few years later, David Cameron took us out of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, a right-of-centre block ,but heavily tainted with federalist sentiment. And he put the Conservative Party right at the heart of this new movement, with broad backing in Eastern Europe. The Poles, the Czechs, the Latvians – all were in no mood to hand their independence to Brussels having just won it back from Moscow.
It was a far-sighted decision. But the move came at an immediate cost. Our former centre-right allies in Europe, who tend to dish out the senior political jobs in Brussels, saw it as a betrayal. Perfidious Albion needed to be punished. The Conservative Party was frozen out from key Brussels posts.
Britain’s influence on individual pieces of EU legislation, for example in financial services, took a knock during those days. But we believed we were gaining something more valuable in the long run: political partnerships with new members in the east, and with like-minded parties and leaders elsewhere, which would eventually help us resolve our longstanding concerns over the EU’s fundamental direction of travel.
That was the deal. And much was done to cultivate these ties and friendships. Many of us were hopeful, therefore, when David Cameron told us last year that his renegotiation over our membership of the EU would lead to meaningful and tangible gains. We watched intently as he toured the capital cities of the EU from Lisbon to Warsaw and from Berlin to Prague, with great resolve and determination, working around the clock to ensure our European partnerships would this time deliver for us.
Then came crunch time – the moment when our investment in over a decade of wining and dining and discussions with allies like the Law and Justice Party of Poland was going to pay off. And we all know what happened next: exactly naught. Our central and eastern European NATO partners – above all the Baltic States and Poland – lobby us to the hilt over Russia. They expect the UK to station British troops in their countries and plead for solidarity to guarantee their security. But when we pressed our concerns with regard to free movement within the EU and the loss of our sovereignty, these fell, and continue to fall, on deaf ears.
The hard lessons from this decade long process for Theresa May are obvious. Since we will be taking back control over our borders and our courts, we can only hope to stay inside the EU single market if like-minded countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Dutch, the Swedes and the Danes, are willing to fight the Brussels establishment with us and demand wholesale European reform. The overwhelming evidence, after years of trying, is that the political will and courage simply is not there.
While influential voices at home continue to urge the Prime Minister to try and secure our place inside the EU single market, the political constraints are plain for all to see. After years of diplomatic effort, how much longer do they want us to try before accepting this road leads to a dead end? When, in a few weeks, we trigger the official EU exit procedure under Article 50 we will have just two years to negotiate satisfactory terms, a timeframe that presents challenges but that has the benefit of focusing the mind. We cannot afford to waste time by making a muddled opening bid that lies well outside the ballpark, and which effectively boils down to a rerun of the Cameron negotiations.
Britain’s future lies outside the EU single market, but within a new Canada-style free trade deal, providing the greatest possible access to European markets on the basis of regulatory equivalence and tariff-free trade of goods. While negotiating such a deal with Brussels will undoubtedly be hard and painful, politically it lies within the realm of what is possible. And economically such a deal would allow trade with Europe to flourish, while also giving us the freedom to strengthen trade ties with the world’s emerging economies. The Prime Minister must now do what she is there for and good at: cut through the knot, and unite the country behind this aspiration.
Daniel Kawczynski is Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury and Atcham and a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.