Europe needs convincing plan that will work

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As political leaders gather in Brussels, they know that as they continue to grapple with an economic crisis that has crippled the eurozone they face another, potentially more damaging, dilemma. The people of Europe are beginning to fall out of love with the EU.

Though there are some stirrings of growth, the economic challenges facing the eurozone are still immense. More worryingly for politicians, across the EU the number of people who have a positive image of it and who think that membership is a good thing continues to decline. With elections to the European Parliament just around the corner, we are seeing the rise of parties opposed to the EU and mainstream politicians are taking a more sceptical line on the merits of membership.

For too long one of Brussels' problems has been its ability to insulate itself from any form of balanced self-assessment or critical external review. One of the features of a new Parliament and new mandate in Brussels must be its ability to be open to scrutiny and embrace critical friends.

There is hope. According to Gallup's latest Eurobarometer survey, almost as many people describe themselves as eurooptimists as eurosceptics, while almost a fifth are undecided. And, while business has significant concerns about how the EU operates, it is overwhelmingly in favour of membership.

Last week, we published a report showing that 85 per cent of UK manufacturers want to remain part of the EU and that, despite the national pastime of Europe-bashing, this proportion has not changed in the past ten years.

So faced with a more sceptical public and a destabilising economic crisis, Europe's political leaders have an opportunity that they must grasp. They need to demonstrate to business and the public that they have a credible plan to address the challengesfacing the eurozone —and that they can deliver it.

According to our own poll of manufacturers, this is industry's top priority for Europe and, although we are not members of the eurozone, it is vital that Britain supports efforts to address its problems.

Beyond this, the members of the European Council need to demonstrate they understand that the underlying problem facing the EU is competitiveness and that a key priority is to improve it.

The council's agenda is a step in the right direction. Aside from an item on reinforcing economic and monetary union, the leaders will be discussing the digital economy, innovation, the services directive and will be taking stock of efforts to foster growth, competitiveness and jobs.

Is this enough to drag the eurozone out of the doldrums and boost its faltering economy? In normal times, incremental initiatives such as these might be sufficient. But we are not living in normal times and the priority must be to show leadership and grasp some nettles.

The council must act on the report from the business task force on cutting EU red tape. This has taken a forensic look at the barriers facing firms looking to invest, expand and create jobs. It has set out a dynamic agenda of where regulation needs to be reformed or withdrawn, and just as importantly, how the EU needs to rethink its approach to regulation.

This is not about removing employment rights or vital projections on health and safety or about reducing our focus on fighting climate change. Nor is it about setting aside one of the key advantages that the single market brings to business — a common set of rules and standards. However, it must look again at the current pipeline of proposed new measures and at existing regulations to see where we can achieve a substantial reduction in their costs and, in some cases, whether they are required at all.

The council must make a commitment to scrutinise the impact of all proposed new rules much more rigorously and subject them to a strict test. If any proposed regulation puts the brakes on growth or competitiveness, it should be consigned to the dustbin.

We also need faster progress in areas where the prize in terms of growth and jobs is significant, including completing the single market, harmonising product standards and making innovation support more accessible to smaller firms.

And, with the US Government now back in action, discussions on the transatlantic trade deal should resume. The EU is sitting on existing trade deals which, if successful, would unlock more than €250 billion into the economy — a life-saving injection for a eurozone that remains in intensive care.

I am encouraged to see the Prime Minister responding so positively to our call for Britain to work with other member states that want the EU to put competitiveness and growth at the heart of its work.

Businesses across Europe share the same concerns. Europe's political leaders need to address these concerns if they are to make the case to an increasingly sceptical public that the EU is working for them and can deliver a strong economic revival, with the prospect of rising living standards and high-quality jobs.

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