Interview with Andrew Lewer (MdEP)

»Reform benefits everyone, not just the UK«

Andrew Lewer (Conservative MEP) wants the UK to stay in a reformed EU. But he would prefer to leave if everything stays the same. Most Europeans have not yet understood what is at stake.

Andrew Lewer (MdEP, Conservative Party / ECR). 2015. Foto: privat
von In Germany people often do not understand the Britons. One conceives of Britain or any other member state leaving the EU impossible. What does the British people distinguish from the German?

Andrew Lewer: One can draw a very clear line between the British and the German people who in many other aspects see life in similar ways. The Germans regard the European Union as a key stone of Germany’s post war identity as a modern nation that has been able to leave dark periods of history behind. Therefore, being in the EU is far more important to people in Germany than to people in the United Kingdom, it is far more fundamental to the Germans’ sense of themselves and how they look upon the world than it is to people in the United Kingdom.

The people in the United Kingdom simply regard the European Union as an economic arrangement. They regard it as something that is to be examined in the same way as one would examine deciding which sort of car to buy or to move house: Does it work? Is it comfortable? Could I get something better? This is how the British people think. Of course, if Britain voted to leave the EU, there would be people who would be surprised and disappointed. But it would not cause any serious psychological problem. Is there anything that would upset the British people?

Andrew Lewer: If Germany left the EU people would walking around in the streets of Germany – sort of agast, horrified and spellbound by such a decision. People in Britain would discuss it in the pub and at the bus stop. But it would not upset people either way massively. But were the United Kingdom to break up and Scotland votes to be independent, that would be catastrophic to the people in Britain. We Germans always focus on Greece, but not on Britain. Do you think this is related to what you said about the difference between Germany and Britain?

Andrew Lewer: I think the reason for that is because of the possibility, or probability of Greece leaving the Euro is a much more immediate problem and is therefore consuming everybody’s attention. It is likley to come ahead sometime in the next two weeks to two months whereas the referendum for the UK will actually end up in 2017, as far as I believe.

However, the German media should make more about this issue. Why is the European Union obsessing about a failed state of eleven million people with a low GDP per head and with very negative economic statistics all around? They should focus on the second largest economy in the EU, one of the six or seven great countries in the world possibly leaving the Europen Union which in every sense is the incredibly more massive thing that could happen. Does this way of dealing with reality reflect the work in the European Parliament?

Anfrew Lewer: There is an increasing sense of frustration on the centre right and in the ECR at the performance of Greek politicians. It is not just the national ones like Tsipras and Varoufakis but actually the performances of Greek MEPs in committee and in plenary work. Many of them, particularily on the left, don’t appear to have learned anything from the crisis that their country has been plunged into, and still spend all their time standing up demanding more money, more free museums and more grants. And as soon as people complain about it they start talking about the German war records or the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum not realizing that they borrowed money that they shouldn’t have borrowed and now need to pay back. What is the relationship between EU reform and the UK staying in?

Andrew Lewer: I think that for Britain to be remaining in the EU it would have to reform itself. And I think that process of reform could take many years and would be quite serious and would involve a lot of work. It would consume the political attention of the countries in the EU at that stage. Nevertheless that would be a victory for people who do see a traditional 28 member state vision of the EU and it would quite significantly push back those people who are still living in this sort of Jean Monnet / Altiero Spinelli world of the 1950s which needs to be put to rest.

Another issue is that the UK tends to send people into the EP who are skeptical about the EU whereas in most of the other countries it is the opposite. The people who want to end up as MEP are usually the politicians from those countries who are the most keen and the most enthusiastic about a federal Europe. Which means that we as British MEPs perhaps get a slightly misleading impression about how enthusiastic everyone else from those countries are about that rather old fashioned view of the future for the EU. What happens if Cameron‘s plan to stay in the EU fails and he is not being supported by other governments to avoid a Brexit?

Andrew Lewer: This is the great fear for a large number of conservative MPs and MEPs who all want a change in the EU. Some want minor alterations, some perhaps unrealistic levels of change. But we are supporting the Prime Minister, we are supporting the government’s re-negotioation efforts. And that keeps us all together. But if David Cameron comes back with very little from a reform package that will be very difficult.

It is inconceivable that he comes back with anything. I don‘t think it would be in the interest of the countries with a similar world outlook like Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and so on, to say: take it or leave it. But there is a very real danger: A few questions that are on people’s minds at the moment are being answered, possibly giving Britain a few opt-out options on things rather than seizing this opportunity to reform the EU not just to keep Britain happy. But to actually reform it in a way that makes it function better and be a more effective organization for the benefit of all 28 countries that are constituants of it, rather than just the United Kingdom, is being left out.

So, the number of conservatives – MPs and MEPs – who back the reform package will entirely depend on the outcome of Cameron’s reform negotiations. There will be a large number of people will not support a superficial package. The outcome of the negotiations will dramatically affect the view of moderate conservatives of the European Union. Because this will then tend to make people like me believe the eurosceptics who say: The Euroepan Union is a federalizing project, it’s a project with a destination, not an ongoing organizsation for the benefit of the 28 members. If the EU appears to be a federal project and we have to „take it or leave it“, then a pretty heftily large number of people will say: In that case, we’ll leave. What do you mean by saying „very little“? What do you expect, at least?

Andrew Lewer: I think „very little“ would be defined as maybe some changes to the times and abilities of foreign EU migrants to claim benefits from the British social security system. Whereas more meaningful reform would be some ability for the United Kingdom to regulate or have a say on who comes and goes from the country. And that might need to sort out a slight re-definition of the concept of freedom of movement to be more reflective of freedom into a job or a financially sustainable position. I also, personally, would like to see a much more serious focus on what the European Union is actually for. Could you please illustrate that?

Andrew Lewer: There is a 1.3 billion spending pot called „Creative Europe“ which seems to me to be a large amount of money that could be better spent by the nation states themselves. Because many of the projects are relatively small, there is an expensive verification process which means that projects and missions have to sent to Brussels and assessed by experts who are either appointed by Brussels or travel to Brussels to discuss them. To me, quite clearly, all that low level expenditure should simply be done in the nation states.

And the other example is the Cohesion and Regional Development funding where the situation that the ten net contributors to the EU like countries like Britain, Germany, Holland and so on pay a large amount of money across the Commission who then "generously" agrees to pay a small amount of it back and tell us exactly what we have to spend it on. That seems to be a complete waste of time and money to me. Why should we pay 500 Euros to the European Commission for them to then give 200 Euros of it back and tell us what we have to send it on? That doesn’t make sense.

And then we should stop the nonsense of having two seats for the European Parliament. I fully appreciate that the relative cost to the EU is very, very small. But it has become very symbolic. People in Britain and elsewhere are getting a bit tired of being lectured by politicians from a certain generation who tell us we don’t understand the symbolic significance of the EU. But the symbolic significance of it has long been overtaken by another symbolic significance – and that is the symbolism of waste, extravagance and unnecessary gesture politics. What do you think is the right time for holding the referendum?

Andrew Lewer: Personally, I think it should be 2017 rather than 2016 because I suspect that some people that are embarking on that process don’t necessarily appreciate the level of complexity that is involved and the level of quite detailed negotiations that would be involved. Please tell me what will happen if the British people opts for leaving the EU – and what happens if it opts for staying in.

Andrew Lewer: What people in Britain need to be clear about – which they may not fully be aware of – is that if we do vote to leave the EU we will never be able to join it again. I am very confident about that not just because we wouldn’t want to apply again in the future, although I don’t think we would. But the tremor that this would cause everywhere else in the EU means that the rest of the EU would never want to go through it again. My hope remains that the people in the rest of the EU realize that it is serious, realize that this is the second largest economy in the EU. Whatever happens to Greece in terms of leaving the Euro or even the EU would be trivial with its impacts compared to the UK leaving the EU.

If the UK leaves the EU the world would not only be a different place for the UK to live in, but it would be a completely different situation for the EU to deal with it as well. The EU have to accept that if the UK leaves places like Switzerland and Norway will never join. But if the EU seriously and fundamentally reforms itself then the people in the UK would be happy to stay with it. Please remember that the EU at the moment is a place countries like Albania and Serbia want to join. I want to reform it itself into something that places like Norway and Switzerland want to join – which it isn’t at the moment. How would you vote if the referendum was tomorrow?

Andrew Lewer: If the referendum was tomorrow I would vote to leave. I would do so for two reasons. First, there is such a significant level of bureaucracy and cost to the EU that if it was unreformed we are probably better off out. Second, if there was a referendum tomorrow, this would indicate that the efforts to reform the EU had not been successful and that the message back to the people in Britain was: Take it or leave it.

If there is a referendum in a year or eighteen months ahead and the EU has demonstrated its ability to change and modernize, then I would vote to stay in. Thank you for the interview.

Andrew Lewer is member of the Conservative Party which has in European Parliament joined the European and Conservative Reformists fraction (ECR). His constituency is the East Midlands.

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