New moves towards a European superstate have led ministers to step up a drive to repatriate powers from Brussels.
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By Patrick Hennessy, Political Editor
9:00PM BST 22 Sep 2012
With a new deadline for a closer “federation of nation states” set for the middle of 2014, Government sources have confirmed that ministers will examine ways of clawing back sovereignty from the European Union in around 20 different areas.
David Cameron is likely to point the way forward to further repatriation in his speech to the Conservative Party conference next month as he attempts to buy time amid calls from Tory Eurosceptics for a landmark referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Over the course of next year, a whole series of reports will be published – the result of a “comprehensive audit” of EU powers over Britain, taking in virtually every government department, which was announced by William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, in July.
The blueprint for repatriation could form the basis of David Cameron’s negotiating position ahead of a possible referendum.
The Prime Minister could warn other EU member states he would fight a referendum on the terms of Britain’s membership with a backdrop of a refusal to meet the UK’s demands for powers to be clawed back.
Senior government sources emphasised last night that such an outcome was still several years away.
However, Mr Cameron, who wrote in The Sunday Telegraph in June, “for me the two words ‘referendum’ and ‘Europe’ can go together”, is likely to spell out further moves at the Tories’ annual conference in Birmingham next month.
News of the major repatriation exercise comes as European leaders draw up fresh plans for greater integration.
Last week Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, set the middle of 2014 as a target for achieving plans to turn the EU into a “federation of nation states” – a move which would be likely to see such sweeping transfers of sovereignty that it would trigger a referendum in Britain under new laws passed by the coalition.
In a separate move, a German-led EU working group put forward a series of radical new plans – including an elected EU president, a new pan-European foreign ministry and moves which would force Britain to give up its veto on foreign policy decision making.
The group, which had an input from 11 EU members states, also signalled a possible European army, a single market for EU defence industries, and sweeping new powers for the European parliament.
Senior Whitehall sources last night attempted to play down the significance of the working group, which was led by Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, claiming that it was a “wish list” which did not represent the official policy of the government of any single EU member state.
However, some close to Mr Cameron fear an “ambush” at December’s key European summit in Brussels with attempts by some government to force pro-federalist moves on to the agenda.
The Prime Minister would then be face with the prospect of wielding Britain’s veto – a year after he did so to halt a new Treaty which was part of a far-reaching deal aimed at saving the stricken euro.
His veto won him praise from Conservative MPs but saw him accused of leaving Britain isolated.
Tory Eurosceptics have long been calling for repatriation of powers in areas such as the Working Time Directive, which aims to regulate the time spent at work to protect the health and safety of employees.
Britain has a partial opt-out but many employers claim the rules are still too restrictive.
Ministers will also look at major reforms of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which has been accused of harming business because of the way it has been interpreted by the European Court of Justice.
Another area in which Eurosceptics are keen to see Britain flex its muscles is the issue of “structural funds” – which distribute EU taxpayers’ cash from a central “pot” to poorer regions across the continent.
It is estimated Britain could save billions of pounds a year if it insisted on control of spending in this area.
This could form a key part of Mr Cameron’s strategy in upcoming budget negotiations for the EU’s next “financial framework” which will set overarching totals for spending to cover the period from 2014 to 2020.
The Prime Minister has already signalled his desire for a repatriation drive, writing in this newspaper in July: “Let us start to spell out in more detail the parts of our European engagement we want, and those we want to end.”
Last year he was badly stung when 81 Conservative MPs rebelled against the government in a vote on staging a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Two parlaimentary private secretaries – ministerial aides on the lowest rung of the government ladder – resigned.
Chris Heaton-Harris, co-founder of the Fresh Start group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs said: “It has been obvious for ages that the Eurozone is heading down a different road to the one the British people would like to take.
“It is good that the Foreign Office has finally noticed what is going on and is working out how much Europe has entangled itself in the Governance of our country.
“We then need a plan that gives voters a chance to have a say in how much we should disentangle ourselves.
Mats Persson, director of the Open Europe think tank, said: ““The government is likely to stop short of any specific policy recommendations but it’s still a hugely useful exercise, as it’ll provide a comprehensive overview of the EU’s impact on British economy and society.
“Irrespective of whether one thinks the EU should do more or less, to gain a better understanding of the various – and often opaque – ways Brussels impacts on daily life in the UK can only help the debate and should be welcomed by all sides.”