We are due what will be undoubtedly be a hard general election in 2015, and Liberal Democrats are already lagging behind the other main parties by not planning our post-coalition policy. The economy, of course, is the most obvious issue – an elephant in the room that, this time around, everyone will be fully aware of! Falling back into second place, if not further, is the comparative whale in the fishtank: the EU, and Britain’s place in it.
Few would deny the time for debate is close. As the nation watches what looks like the slow-motion collapse of the Euro, Euroscepticism is on the rise. And with UKIP snapping on our heels in some polls and the Tories keeping their supporters unhappy on the issue, we should start positioning ourselves to fight off the right as well as the left. We will face a Conservative party keen to pick up seats to take a majority in 2015, and our seats will be an easier option than those of Labour’s. Make no mistake, they may be being nice to us at the moment, but the Tories will not hold back when the time comes.
So where should we stand? Certainly in favour of a referendum on membership, something guaranteed in our 2010 manifesto for the next time the relationship between the UK and the EU ‘fundamentally’ changes and reinforced by the Coalition’s referendum lock. Yet we should consider going further and offering a referendum come what may, above and beyond talking more of the reforms we shall make and buoying our democratic credentials. I’d hope to see at least some Lib Dem support of a referendum in the forthcoming debate on the matter in the House of Commons. In general, however, reform of key areas will undoubtedly be a far better, liberal, centrist position for us to hold than advocating leaving completely – a viewpoint that, whether you agree with Peter Oborne’s ‘guilty men’ accusations or not, is already relegated to easily-dismissible fringe groups, and easy to keep there!
We should also be open and blunt about the large reforms that we will make. One obvious place to look for ideas is Nick Clegg’s chapter in The Orange Book, ripe for updating. His suggestion of stopping perpetual change in the EU to help it gain public confidence is good but probably unworkable in the current extended crisis, and talk of scrutinising the European Commission’s workings more thoroughly simply does not go far enough. We should publicly change our approach to the EU, our media spokespeople making clear our belief that it is flawed and in desperate need of reform. Where is the political benefit in making unpopular arguments in defence of the EU in general when we could be telling of our plans, say, to replace CAP? Why should we not criticise the EU for making directives about the types of balloons that children can inflate without adult supervision at all, instead of defending it because unlike what the tabloids say, they’re not actually banning it?
Clegg was right to declare that the EU should act only on issues that have clear cross-border benefits unattainable by nations on their own – from free trade to international crime. He was right to point out the foolishness of countries giving the EU money to have it recycled back to their own deprived areas, right to call for repatriation of powers over social and agricultural policy, and these are issues which the party should become much more aggressive over. The EU is a liberal experiment that has gone awry in certain areas, and pointing out those and seeking to correct them should be our priority.
At present, we are seen as unashamed Europhiles, in puppy love with the EU and wanting to take the UK into the Euro; a position that makes us look ridiculous in the current climate and puts off voters from switching to us. The public has many concerns over the EU that could be dealt with sensibly were clear proposals to be offered in language that matched their fears – instead, they are pushed into the arms of extremists. Although we are EU-reformers in policy terms, we are not yet associated with that in the public mind, being so stunningly bad at selling it. Time to change that.