Tomorrow the Liberal Democrats will table an amendment to the Government’s parliamentary motion proposing the Queen’s Speech. Our amendment calls for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
This does not signal a change in our party’s attitude towards the Europe. We remain constructively pro-European, but we see this referendum as an opportunity to have a proper debate about the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Over thirty five years as a member state, we have seen the EU widen both its membership and share sovereignty from Mrs Thatcher’s Single European Act through to a succession of treaties agreed by both Conservative and Labour governments. In truth, the EU has changed beyond recognition from the EEC that Britain originally joined in 1973.
No-one under the age of fifty – including the current Foreign Secretary – has had a say on Britain’s membership of the EU. An in-out referendum would give people a vote on the broad issue rather than a narrower referendum on the Reform Treaty and allow us to promote the positive benefits of membership.
By doing so, we can also draw the poison from the debate about Europe’s future.
The Conservative Party promoted closer European integration – without referendums – while in office. In opposition they have indulged in the worst kind of anti-European populism, calling for referendums on individual treaties to mask their own divisions and the wish of many of their own MPs to leave the European Union altogether.
Similarly, the Labour Party has been less than honest. Since 1997 they too have given away powers, but refused to engage the public in a proper debate about the direction of the EU. Gordon Brown appears scared to make the case for Europe, though we hope that he will accept our challenge to do so.
We are not uncritical supporters of the European Union. We want it to concentrate its energies on genuine cross-border issues like the threat of climate change and promoting of free trade with countries outside its borders, It should also reform many of its own internal policies and practices.
However, the EU has brought a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity to Europe and it has successfully integrated new member states that were once dictatorships in Southern and Eastern Europe. The Liberal Democrats believe that Britain’s best interests will be served by being positive members of the Union, while seeking to improve it.
We are ready to make the positive case for Europe in a proper public debate about our membership, and we trust the people to make a decision about whether we should stay in or get out. We must flush our opponents out of their bunkers and challenge them to make clear their positions on this fundamental issue for the future of our country.
Vince Cable is the Acting Liberal Democrat leader and MP for Twickenham.