Today is Europe Day. The Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding treaty was signed 55 years ago; post war Europe sought a new strategy to end old enmities and forge shared prosperity through economic growth. However one measures the achievements of those goals, the conclusion has to be the European Union has delivered on both counts.
For those of us who believe in the EU’s objectives and feel that Britain should be leading in Europe, these are turbulent times.
Restoring faith in a political structure which may appear removed from the citizen, and rebuilding an economic framework which has been proven inadequate is a challenge for Europe’s political leaders.
The rise of fringe anti-EU political parties is also testament to deep-seated dissatisfaction, largely aimed at politicians at the national level, although the EU institutions have become a protest lightning rod.
The first round ballot of the French presidential elections tells the story; Le Pen’s Front National and Melenchon’s Communists – both populist parties playing the anti-European card – scooped almost 30 per cent of the popular vote. We’ve seen similar trends in a number of other countries. Conservative grandee, Tim Yeo, has warned the Tory faithful that UKIP presents a similar challenge to his party’s fortunes; a strong showing in the 2014 European elections will, he fears, dent Conservative prospects at the General Election.
Against this backdrop, the temptation is to pick up the eurosceptic rugby ball and run with it. Less Europe, not more; sovereignity not shared solutions.
Liberal Democrats tend to default to a more enlightened, progressive mindset. Our values are anchored in being engaged in the international community, sufficiently self aware to recognise the UK no longer has the clout to go it alone. Internationalists by instinct, we recognise the challenges of our age are rarely managed at the national level alone. Tackling global issues can only be achieved in concert with other countries and within an agreed framework of action that has political and legal bite.
Take the issue of crime. Drug smuggling, trafficking of people (including children) and the market in illegal weapons and firearms are transboundary. It defies logic, then, that UKIP and some Conservatives call for our withdrawal from European justice and home affairs initiatives such as the European Arrest Warrant, EuroJust and Europol. It’s easy to bang that particular drum, but the consequences would lead quite simply to more crime on our streets.
However, the temptation remains on the doorstep to deliver a populist line. While we should keep the EU in check, we should not sleepwalk down the slippery slope of euroscepticism.
Let UKIP spew nonsense, and Conservatives spin half-truths, but it is our responsibility as Liberal Democrats to defend the reality of living in a globalised world; that if we want less crime on our streets, if we want a cleaner environment, if want to guarantee affordable energy solutions, if want to safeguard economic growth and prosperity, that can not only be achieved realistically by means of the European Union. There isn’t an alternative. The logic then follows, we should make the best of our membership; leading beats being led.
The climate is tough, and sentiment on the doorstep can be chilly. However, landing the message that vetoes and other futile posturing ends in the UK shooting itself in the foot is an opportunity that, as Liberal Democrats, we should not shy away from.