The European Union needs reform, not new powers

Timothy Garton Ash argues that it is not possible for British politicians to oppose the revived constitutional treaty and greater foreign policy powers for the European Union while calling for more EU action against pariah states like Burma and Zimbabwe (The Tories' vision for a brave new world is built on a confidence trick, October 4). "Britain's capacity to make a real difference in any of these areas, acting on its own as an independent power, has diminished, is diminishing and will continue to diminish," he says.

Garton Ash argues that the UK must sign up to greater EU foreign policy powers to retain influence. "The obvious place to get [more weight] is in the EU, the world's largest concentration of the rich and free outside the US."

This is wrong-headed. The EU needs reform, not new powers. As the EU's recent approach to Burma has shown, where there is agreement the EU is perfectly capable of acting under the current treaties. Only last week the EU agreed to impose a range of new sanctions on the junta, and an expanded import ban on key Burmese products like timber and gemstones.

Garton Ash is arguing that we need more majority voting to create common EU positions. This is the crucial point underlying his claim that "only the EU acting as one will have the clout" when dealing with Zimbabwe. But trying to create an artificial consensus through greater majority voting is unlikely to work. Gordon Brown wants Robert Mugabe excluded from the EU-Africa summit in December, while most EU countries, including Germany, do not. If the UK was obliged to follow a common EU line it would be harder for it to speak out, let alone act, against Zimbabwe.

He assumes the EU is instinctively incapable of running an immoral foreign policy. This is not borne out by the facts. For instance, according to a recently leaked memo, the EU is happy to butter up Uzbekistan in order to gain influence in central Asia. This is despite a warning from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that "the worsening human rights situation in Uzbekistan is also directly linked to the EU's soft-pedalling".

And if we want to see how EU foreign policy would work under majority voting, look at some areas where majority voting applies already. Take the EU's trade policy. Is it a moral foreign policy? No. At the moment rich countries, with a GDP per capita of more than £15,000 a year, pay an EU import tariff of just 1.6%. But countries with a GDP per capita of less than £5,000 a year pay an average of 5%. Malawi faces a tax equivalent to 12%.

It is right to say, as Garton Ash does, that "to realise our national interests today, Britain almost invariably has to work through international alliances and institutions". However, the debate about what kind of foreign policy the EU should have is a good example of the difference between an EU of voluntary cooperation and one that tries to create artificial consensus by majority voting.

The revived treaty policy proposals need to be looked at in a clear-eyed way, not through rose-tinted glasses.

Alistair Tebbit, the research director of Open Europe.