The Independent View: How should Liberal Democrats respond to the views of their voters on Europe

In the polarised and often exaggeratedUKdebate on the EU, the Lib Dems have often been caricaturised by much of the press and Tory MPs as being unreservedly in favour of greater EU integration or even an ‘EU super state’. The truth is of course far more nuanced.

That’s why a new YouGov/Cambridge cross-country poll out today is so interesting. It shows that a majority of UK voters (53%) support either no further EU integration or a looser arrangement. Only 14% said they wanted more integration. These attitudes span the political divide, with 50% of Lib Dem voters saying they wanted either a loser relationship with the EU or outright withdrawal. On the thorny question of whether primary responsibility for specific policy areas should lie with national capitals or Brussels, Lib Dem voters want more national control over areas such as police and crime, employment laws and trade almost as much as the average UK voter, and even more on agriculture.

Source: YouGov-Cambride poll ‘Cross-country attitudes on Europe’, 13 March 2012

Similar trends can be seen in the Voice’s own polling (here and here) suggesting that both Lib Dem members and voters would reject working closer economic and political union in Europe. But while Lib Dem politicians have criticised individual aspects of EU policy, such as the Working Time Directive or the Common Fisheries Policy, on the whole the party leadership has so far not put forward an alternative vision for the EU-UK relationship.

This is worrying for two main reasons: first, as today’s poll show, the gap between what voters and the political party think on Europe is widening – a trend which is seen in party politics acrossEurope. This isn’t healthy in the long-run. Secondly, the eurozone crisis is changing the wayEuropeoperates, pulling those countries that share the single currency closer together, forcing those outside to decide what kind of relationship they want with the core. In short, the status quo is no longer an option.Britainneeds a new vision for European cooperation, and so do the Lib Dems.

 The principles of localism, which have been overwhelming endorsement by the coalition, and the Lib Dems in particular, could serve as the basis for a new, positive vision of Britain in Europe. In a recent report, entitled “The Case for European Localism”, Open Europe argued that the EU ought to focus more its core competencies of boosting trade and the Single Market, and less on political institution-building. National parliaments would be accorded a more prominent role in EU affairs, something that would increase democratic accountability and transparency. Far more decisions should be made nationally, regionally or locally.

European localism would act as an overarching strategy, within which theUKcould chose individual areas where it wanted to maintain a bigger role for the EU, such as environmental policy, but devolve competencies over other areas, such as crime and policing, regional policy, agriculture or social and employment law.

With overwhelming backing from voters, the Lib Dems have a valuable opportunity to capture the centre ground on the EU debate and fashion a new, vibrant and more nuanced narrative that moves beyond the tired in/out debate. How will the leadership respond?

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Pawel Swidlicki is a researcher at Open Europe, an independent think tank campaigning for EU reform

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This entry was posted in Europe / International, Op-eds and The Independent View.
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15 Comments

  • The division of the EU into a series of central-outer zones is already in place & the British consensus is for the UK to be in the outer layer.

    The Eurozone countries have no choice but to go for further integration, just to keep the Euro together, this implies a widening gap between centre & fringes but I dont see that as a problem, we all have to learn to be more flexible.

  • Richard Dean 15th Mar '12 - 1:14pm

    Voters’ views are conditioned to a considerable extent by the information they receive, and European institutions have been astonishingly lax at presenting themselves well. Mostly the present information seems biassed against Europe, so no wonder voters respond as they do. So I suggest that a LibDem vision does not need to be constrained by what voters think now. It needs to be consistent with what voters would think if they had better information!

    Would people have the same attitudes if they appreciated more clearly some of the disbeneifts of not being part of Europe? Here is an example relating to the Euro …

    At an airport recently, I noticed that if I change 100 pounds into Euros, then change the Euros back, I end up with about 70 pounds. What this seems tomean is that currency conversion is a 15% tax on our exports to Europe, and a 15% protectionist barrier against imports from Europe. The 15% bothw ways is basically unproductive profits for financial services. People might place less value on the preotectionist aspects if we were not in financial difficulties.

    As always, being rather ignorant of economics, I await people’s corrections ….!

  • I may have wished it, but where does it state from which organisation this person is from? From the plug for an Open Europe document, I am guessing that’s the answer. I like the Independent View idea – bringing in outside voices to limit the extent to which this is a Lib Dem echo chamber – but where the authors of these pieces are coming from should be stated clearly.

  • Alex Macfie 15th Mar '12 - 2:53pm

    National parliaments would be accorded a more prominent role in EU affairs, something that would increase democratic accountability and transparency.

    This is a good idea, and moreover it could be done by any national government without changing EU law. There seems to be very little parliamentary accountability for the positions taken by national governments in the EU Council. Our government could lead by example by having parliamentary debates on the positions its ministers and mandarins should take.

    And what about the one EU institution that is properly democratic, namely the European Parliament? We really need to break the media conspiracy of silence over what happens there. Perhaps our MEPs should blow their trumpets more. But maybe because of this conspiracy of silence, they see little point, and decide they may as well just get on quietly with their jobs… sadly it won’t help us elect more Lib Dem MEPs if people don’t see what they do…

  • Denis Cooper 15th Mar '12 - 2:55pm

    I suggest that the LibDems should say that they believe strongly in the EU, but also believe strongly that any major changes to the EU should need direct approval from the British people in a referendum.

    An honest and honourable position to take, one which puts your democratic credentials on full display.

    Oh, no, hang on; that’s what you’ve already been saying for a long time, but when it comes to a vote in Parliament you either abstain or actually vote against having a referendum.

    So that one won’t wash any more.

  • We really need to shake off this “EU fanatic” tag that we’ve got from the media. Unfortunately that’s pretty hard to do as in the media we’re always on the back foot defending the EU from the Eurosceptics. Nick’s image as the Brussells “yes man” is incredibly damaging. He shouldn’t be afraid of speaking up more loudly for reform of the EU along more liberal lines and to criticise the EU where necessary. Whether the media will bother listening is another thing unfortunately.

  • Alex Macfie 15th Mar '12 - 4:41pm

    The Lib Dems do support reform of the EU. Trouble is that no-one listens, because as far as the media are concerned, there are only two positions that it is possible to take on the EU: either uncritical support for everything that any EU institution does, or withdrawal from the EU. There is no concept in the media of support for the principle of the EU but wishing to change the way it is run, analogous to (for example) supporting the principle of the British state while opposing the government of the day. If UK politics were reported in the way European politics is reported, then the only voices that would be heard would be those of the government and its uncritical supporters, and those obscure fringe grousp that wanted to overthrow the entire British state. I mentioned above the conspiracy of silence over what happens in the European Parliament. This happens because MEPs don’t discuss whether the EU should exist, but how the EU should be run, and therefore as far as the media is concerned it doesn’t count.

  • Pawel Swidlicki 15th Mar '12 - 5:22pm

    Richard – It is certainly true that EU institutions often get a bad press, but often this is as a direct result of their (often very expensive) efforts at self-promotion, and not their lack. The controversy over the ‘racist’ enlargement video last week is a good example.

    Stuart – I am a researcher at Open Europe, happy to declare that.

    Alex – European Parliament a very mixed bag. There are some excellent MEPs who campaign for greater openness and transparency, but far too many happy to avoid greater public scrutiny, particularly regarding their expenditure. We learnt from the expenses scandal here how corrosive that can be to public confidence.

    On your second point I agree about the intellectual poverty of the EU debate in the UK, which is (a why this poll is interesting because it does offer some nuance beyond the usual in/out options, for example by asking about specific policy areas, and b) why I linked to our recent European Localism paper, which I think is a good starting point for a discussion about how an alternative UK-EU relationship could look like.

    Thanks for all your comments

  • Pawel Swidlicki 15th Mar '12 - 6:13pm

    Nosemonkey – thanks for your comments, would have addressed them before but they’ve only just been posted. As I said to Stuart I was not trying to mask representing Open Europe (hence why the piece is posted in the ‘Independent View’).

    You’re right that the wider results of the poll are fascinating (e.g. we’re doing a separate piece inepreting the German findings) but this is just a short focused piece on what it means for the Lib Dems, often perceived as being unambiguously in favour of more integration. While you’re right that the poll does not mention localism, I think its findings, which show a clear majority not favouring withdrawal (only 20%) yet also in favour of more devolution across most policy areas, a good opportunity to argue that EU localism could be a viable alternative.

  • Good piece though underplaying difficulties in actually negotiating a ‘localist’ solution in Europe perhaps? Eurosceptic or not (and I certainly dont always agree with them) Open Europe’s coverage of the Eurozone crisis has been excellent and they’ve produced some high-calibre research and been ahead of the curve. @Nosemonkey, it’s precisely your type of reasoning that makes the debate on the EU in the UK so dull, ie putting labels on people rather than addressing the issue on substance. Linking to some 2 year old blog post doesnt really do a whole lot for this debate

  • Localism, or subsidiarity as it used to be called, must be taken seriously by the EU if Europhiles like me are to are to effectively argue to halt the UK’s march towards Europhobia. It is also essential for the EU’s accounts to be signed off by auditors which I understand has not happened for many years!

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