Tristram Hunt: Stoke-on-Trent could miss out on millions if Europe rebels get their way
AS THE Prime Minister prepared to represent British interests at the unsuccessful European Union summit in Brussels, his Conservative colleagues were having their own fun.
Because last week marked the 20th anniversary of the first rebellion against the Maastricht Treaty, when 26 rebel Tories, led by our near neighbour Stone MP Bill Cash, defied party orders and voted against the Government.
Some still claim that the Maastricht rebels prevented us entering the single currency.
In fact, our absence from the Euro has far more to do with the legacy of 'Black Wednesday', the disastrous crash out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism later in John Major's premiership.
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Nevertheless, the political recriminations were bitter.
The rebellion left John Major's government hopelessly divided, opening up a split on Europe within the party that has never really healed.
As David Cameron has been heard to grumble: "If you put two Conservatives in the same room, it will not take them long to fall out over Europe."
Like no other issue, it consumes them. And, sensing weakness in both the Prime Minster and public support for Europe, the sceptics have decided now is the moment to strike.
It is this challenge the Prime Minister must confront every time he enters European talks.
I have every sympathy with his call for a more efficiently-run European Union.
Its real spending priorities should be enhancing growth and innovation and, such is the waste in Brussels, there is no reason why this cannot be done with a far more restrained budget.
Yet he has to negotiate in the knowledge that a large part of his party wants to leave the European Union altogether.
This is not a strong hand, but the Prime Minister's own strategy leaves a lot to be desired.
His occasional flashes of encouragement to the anti-Europe mob weakens his ability to protect our national interest.
As Europe tires of David Cameron's 'megaphone diplomacy', the prospect of withdrawal is no longer so far-fetched.
Though it may not be a very popular position, I do not believe this would be in the interests of Britain, Europe, or Stoke-on-Trent.
First of all, there is the money. As one of the largest and richest nations in the EU, Britain is a net contributor to the budget – though the £8.91 billion it costs us is just over one per cent of total national expenditure. Yet what that statistic does not explain is how that money gets redistributed to areas of economic disadvantage, including Stoke-on-Trent.
Last year, £1.2 million was handed over to revitalise Burslem's town centre, while just last month the European Regional Development fund awarded the city £2.1 million to transform Hanley.
Furthermore, with this fund set to name North Staffordshire as a 'transition region', some £90 million of Euro cash could be unlocked for job creation projects between 2014 and 2020.
Moreover, the EU also plays a vital role in supporting our third and voluntary sectors.
Between 2003 and 2008, small scale projects, including those ran by EPIC in Bentilee and the North Staffordshire YMCA, received over £1.8 million worth of funding, helping 2,500 of the city's most vulnerable people.
Then there are the benefits to trade. From the emerging BRIC economies to the USA, our allies are united in believing that we offer more as part of the EU trading block.
To leave Europe would risk millions of pounds worth of inward investment from global companies – like Toyota, down the road in Derby – who want unfettered access to the single market.
Furthermore, co-operation strengthens our global influence.
Last week, the European Commission imposed harsh tariffs on illegally dumped ceramic imports, a move that helps Stoke-on-Trent-based pottery businesses.
Were Britain to have done this alone, China would not have batted an eyelid. But when such action is taken by a single market of 500 million people, Beijing sits up and takes notice.
And of course, we need influence within Europe too. Sixty percent of our trade is still done with our European partners – not to have a seat at the table is sheer folly.
Indeed, as the Prime Minister's use of the veto last year showed, Europe is more than prepared to discuss important issues of British interest without our voice being heard. The European Union is in dire need of reform.
Yet the benefits of membership in a globalised world remain profound.
Unless the Prime Minister confronts his back-benches, Europe may destroy the Government as it did the last Conservative government.
But before that, it could obliterate our relationship with the EU and diminish our standing in the world.