“An Engaged and Constructive” policy for Europe


Austin Rathe has launched a consultation of Lib Dem members on our views regarding the European Union and the forth-coming referendum. I was quick to reply.  As a long term supporter of the European Union and its aims and having played an active role in the European election campaign last year I have definite views.

The referendum is not simply about what we like and don’t like about the EU, but more fundamentally about what sort of country we want to be and what role we seek to play in world affairs. A recent study rated Britain as the world’s leader in “soft power”, a result that supports the view that Britain is the most influential country in the world.

The whole world watched in fascination as the referendum on Scottish Independence played out last year. They will watch even more intensely when the EU referendum gets underway. For the world knows what we don’t always realise – we are the cockpit of world debate on the key issues of the day. When Thatcher pioneered the radical reform of Britain in the early 80s she was a lone voice, but the world rapidly followed and privatisations and market liberalisation became policy in almost every country.

Today nationalism is on the rise.  Countries are turning inwards on themselves, descending into civil wars and voices championing narrow beggar-my-neighbour policies are on the rise in all the European countries. So the referendum is not just a simple question of being IN or OUT but what sort of country do we want and what vision do we have for the future of Europe.

The vision of a federal super-state is dead. De Gaulle’s alternate vision of a Europe of Nation States has become the de facto model. With ‘Subsidiarity’ and ‘Proportionality’ built into the Lisbon Treaty and enforceable in the European Court of Justice and with the need for referendums to be held in several EU countries before any further transfer of powers to Brussels the road to a federal super-state is barred.

In response to the rise of the destructive voices of the nationalist right Liberal, Social Democrat and Green parties in other countries are becoming more vocal in their support for and promotion of the European Union. As Tim Farron has pointed out our sister party in Holland, D66, made huge gains in the Dutch elections earlier this year. For the first time they campaigned with a very strong pro-European message.

In Sweden the minority Government has declared a new policy of “an engaged and constructive” role in Europe. In the agreement with the Swedish Liberal party and others signed in December 2014 this was confirmed as Swedish policy until 2022. The policy “confirms the country’s gradual shift towards discussing actual policy issues, rather than discussing whether or not Sweden should be at the EU’s ‘core’”.

Our campaign should not simply be for a “Yes” vote but for a similar change in policy and mindset by the British public. Let us assert a vision of a European Union of Nation States in which Britain seeks to be a leader.


* Mike Biden is an Executive ordinary member in Winchester. A lifelong supporter of the Liberals, he has become an activist since his retirement. His career saw him in senior corporate positions in Sales & Marketing and as a Chief Executive.

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  • Luigi Gregori 3rd Aug '15 - 11:54am

    Very much agree with Mike’s comments. The key point for me , and which was missed in the consultation survey recently launched, is that it is not a simple question of IN or OUT. The question is really what sort of Europe do we want and what is Britain’s role in it. An inability to articulate a positive vision, addressing some of the real problems impacting Europe, will not help in winning the referendum, and I suspect will not settle the question for this generation.

  • John Tilley 3rd Aug '15 - 12:32pm

    Mike Biden, I disagree with your suggestion that Europe should merely be a bunch of Nation States cobbled together and “lead” by Britain.
    Have you really thought this through? Do you really think that your UK is so great that ‘Those Foreigners’ will tug their forelocks and express gratitude that ‘The Brits’ will be able to teach them how to behave properly?
    Am I mis-understanding or is there just a tiny element of nationalistic nonsense in your suggestion?

    Any arrangement of Europe which is based on the assumption that all foreigners are inferior to The Brits will have about as much logic behind it as building a big fence round Hungary and assuming that will make it a better place.

  • Richard Stallard 3rd Aug '15 - 12:34pm

    “Countries are turning inwards on themselves, descending into civil wars and voices championing narrow beggar-my-neighbour policies are on the rise in all the European countries.”
    Yes – the dying superstate is unravelling as countries fight back against the decades of misery foisted upon them by an unelected bureaucracy. It was a failed experiment from the start and unfortunately, just like the USSR, dismantling it can’t be achieved without casualties. Thank goodness we didn’t get even deeper into it than we already are. Or are you one of those who still thinks we should have joined the euro?

  • “The question is really what sort of Europe do we want and what is Britain’s role in it.”
    Errrr,.. how about the one we voted for in 1975?
    The Eurozone far exceeded its 1975 remit, and in its megalomaniac hubris created its own poison chalice, ‘The Euro’. Greece is merely the first to discover that a once sovereign country which sups from that chalice, will find out (the hard way), where true power and sovereignty resides.?
    We are now witness to The Great EU Unravelling. And if it gathers some revolutionary pace, from Greece through to Italy, Spain and France, I’m now beginning to wonder if our In/Out referendum will even be needed? If we are patient and leave it long enough, will there be anything to exit from?

  • Richard are you one of our trolls? I did not support joining the Euro and never thought a Federal superstate was a good idea either. The EU is not a country never mind a superstate. It is an international treaty organisation – I.e. A mutually beneficial agreement between countries. The EU is far more democratic than the UK. UKIP have 20 MPs vs just one MP. The Council of ministers is composed of the elected heads of the Governments of each country as opposed to the House of Lords which has no elected representatives and is stuffed with hereditary peers an Engkish Bishops. As for the Commision that is the Civil Service of the EU and like every other civil service does what it’s masters tell it even if they are all unelected bureaucracy. Whitehall is hardly a model of bureaucratic efficiency. The debate is not about In or Out but what sort of Europe do we want to see ? it is after all not going to go away.

  • John,

    No I don’t have an overblown perception of Britain’s influence. People do not necessarily agree with us and we have much to learn from the other members of the EU – as my post shows in referring to the policies of Lib Dem parties in other countries. But for three hundred years we have been a major player, acknowledged as one of the “Great Powers” of Europe. Until now we have been a very open and international society in touch with almost all parts of the world – that connectivity informs our political debate and others watch – if they like it they follow – that makes one a leader. But you can’t make people follow you.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Aug '15 - 1:45pm

    Mike, a bit rich to call someone a troll then say the EU is “far more democratic than the UK”.

  • “how about the one we voted for in 1975?”

    You mean the one based on an explicit commitment to ever closer union? Bring it on.

  • John Stevens 3rd Aug '15 - 2:37pm

    I greatly fear the legacy of the Europe debate to date is a referendum on whether we are right out or almost out. Right in, meaning we have the same status as, say, France or Germany (Euro, Schengen etc.) seems to have become impossibly remote. Yet until it is believed to be possible to make the full IN case, the full OUT case enjoys an immense strategic advantage, for even if it does not win (and I anticipate a referendum result similar to, and as decisive as , that in Scotland) it will continue to set the terms. Will a narrow YES vote create the basis for doing this? Perhaps. Will the Lib Dems offer a serious platform for such an approach? On past form, it seems a very remote possibility. This looks more likely to be the territory of discontented Labour or even Conservative pro-Europeans and, for their own reasons, the SNP.

  • @Mike Biden

    You tell us that “The EU is not a country never mind a superstate.” Why then does it have a flag and ‘national’ anthem?

    I also don’t believe the old canard that the people of the UK, in 1975, were well informed on the “ever closer union” bit – it was sold as a Common Market.

    What is wrong with moving to an association of sovereign states, using an EFTA/EEA model, in a community of equals, and doing away with the pompous, goose-stepping hierarchy – we have enough of that in the UK

  • Chris, we voted for an “ever closer union of the peoples of Europe” not a unification of the Nation States which was a vison of German federalists but never shared by the French. The French specifically voted against a European Constitution in a referendum as did the Dutch and that rather torpedoes a “super-state” for good. The Lisbon Treaty explicitly recognises the rights of the Member Nations and enshrines the principles of ‘subsidiarity’ and ‘proportionality’ into the legality and enforceability of EU Regulations.

  • WG. As for flags and anthems, what about the Commonwealth which has a flag and an “Affirmation”?
    see http://goo.gl/3FGB4o And NATO and the UN all have flags etc too. As for the “old canard” I can tell you we voted for a “European Economic Community”. The Single markete had not even bee thought of. The political implications were understood and both Tony Benn and Enoch Powell both campaigned loudly for a NO vote based on their objection to the potential loss of Sovereignty. The British people decided that it would be marginal and the ECONOMIC gain would far outweigh any marginal loss and so it has proven to be.

  • Mike Biden – that simply won’t do. The commitment to ever closer union is and always have been in the first line of the Treaty of Rome and that was what we voted on, not something else that you made up (along with whatever it is that you think the word federal means).

  • @Mike Biden

    Your Commonwealth “Affirmation” has no legally binding authority – it is an agreement of association.

    I can also assure you – I was around at the time – that the overwhelming feeling at the time was that our staying in was sold as a Common Market. Harold Wilson also informed us at the time that ultimate power lay in nation states’ parliaments – now we are subject to Qualified Majority Voting under which the people of this country have become more powerless.

    As for the economic gain, I would question that – I’ve seen a lot of people becoming very rich on an increasingly lengthening gravy train, whilst people on my level of society have been trodden underfoot.

    I believe that the community in which I live has been severely damaged, the democratic structures hollowed out to accommodate an unaccountable ‘Quangocracy’, and an increasing hopelessness exists that has absolutely no faith in our representative structures.

    The European Union only increases this feeling of ‘post-democracy’.

  • Peter Bancroft 3rd Aug '15 - 4:52pm

    This article misunderstands the term federal. Subsidiarity means the same thing, yet it’s been used here as an example of why the EU will not be federal. Recent Eurozone activities have suggested that the EU could move towards a more federal model faster than at any time since Maastricht.

    I don’t think that the Conservative view of a Europe of member states has any credibility (though that may be any option for EFTA), and I don’t think it’s helpful for us as a party to be pushing for it.

  • Richard Stallard 3rd Aug '15 - 5:47pm

    People now look at the eu with great suspicion after the Greek debacle (which isn’t over yet, by a long chalk). They see brand new roads and bridges in Spain and Greece whilst our own are in a sorry state of repair, and the present scenes at Calais do nothing to help. If you ask most people to name a benefit of being in the eu, the best they can come up with are a few mumblings about trade and mentions of lower mobile roaming charges (which have yet to come into effect) .
    We, as a country, had to help sort out Europe’s problems twice in the last century, at great cost to ourselves and are now repeatedly asked to do so again, this time financially.
    No – I’m not a troll, merely pointing out that championing the eu is not, and never will be, much of a vote winner.

  • Peter, I am very happy us as a party to have a debate about what sort of EU we are in as long as we are in it. That is rather the point of the blog – what matters are the policies and practices of the European Union. This is what we should be talking about and not whether we should be in or out. When I asked Nick Clegg at the last party conference about Junker’s idea there might be an EU army he declared it a “barmy idea” so clearly a federal super-stae is not on his agenda either.

  • Chris, the “ever closer union of peoples” is as you rightly say in the Treaty of Rome and it is also in every EU Treaty since, but that is not the same as a aiming to have a complete political union of the Nations of Europe. If and when the people were to become sufficiently united then they might eventually decide to go for a union of the Nation States, but the Union of Nation States is not the objective, the union of people’s is. There is a very important difference.

  • Richard Underhill 3rd Aug '15 - 10:37pm

    wg 3rd Aug ’15 – 2:58pm EFTA / EEA achiever their limited objectives, then most of their members applied to join the EU.

  • Richard Underhill 3rd Aug '15 - 10:56pm

    There was more than twenty years of debate before 1975.
    Six Liberal MPs had divided the House of Commons in the mid-1950s.
    Harold Macmillan’s Lord Chancellor had spelled out the position in Parliament in the early 1960s.
    Harold Wilson was PM during 1964 – 1970 and tried to negotiate entry.
    After a change in the French Presidency Ted Heath took us in, supported by Labour’s pro-europeans led by Roy Jenkins.
    1975 was historic because it was the first referendum in the UK, when voters realised it was for real they attended lots of local meetings.
    On polling day there was a large majority for the YES vote almost everywhere.
    Spain and Portugal joined after discarding dictatorship without becoming communist.
    There was very little controversy when Finland, Sweden and Austria joined.
    When the Iron Curtain was abolished in 1989 the EU was large enough to help central and eastern European countries towards democracy, human rights, free trade and an effective economy.
    That process takes a while to work through, but it is working.

  • If one questions the benefits of EU membership just look at the cases of Poland and Ukraine. In 1990 after the Wall came down they hade similar population, economic structures and GDPs/head. The Poles joined the EU the Ukraines did not. The Poles are now 3x richer than the Ukrainians and at peace. I rest my case, positive engagement with the EU delivers huge benefits to the majority of ordinary people.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Aug '15 - 8:20am

    But Mike, why can’t we hear a pragmatic case for Europe? When people’s assessment doesn’t change even after the Greece crisis then suddenly it doesn’t seem to be about pragmatism but a misplaced loyalty with an institution rather than with people.

    I’m hoping to move to the continent over the next few years and even I can’t see the case for simply loving the EU, so how many others are going to see it? I don’t see why unskilled workers should be allowed to come to a country and not learn the language. It’s rude and puts pressure on the local population. Unless it is due to asylum.

  • Neil Sandison 4th Aug '15 - 9:50am

    It started as the Common Market ,It has evolved into the European Union ,But should it stop there ?.Should we as reformist be arguing for the next rational step of its evolution and perhaps looking back to its roots and pressing for a reformed” European Economic ,Sustainability Council “. The EESC could drive European economic diversity , renewal and productivity .It could deal with issues of sustainability and better resource management.it could tackle the issues of climate change and transforming the common agricultural policy and yes tackle one of the impacts of climate change and political instability mass migration. Defending he Status Quo should never be an option for a Liberal and reformist party.

  • Mike Biden – I completely agree that we should have a clear vision of what sort of Europe we want, and as a direct corollary, what changes we should campaign for to achieve that vision.

    Unfortunately, that’s precisely the question Lib Dems have dodged over the years preferring to stick with a simplistic ‘everything EU is wonderful, no further debate needed’ approach. Hence, prospective MEPs were apparently instructed by the powers that be in Lib Dem Towers not to discuss EU issues in their campaigns. When euro-sceptics forced a referendum onto the agenda that translated into IN to counter their OUT, a purely reactive stance. That strategy has now achieved its deserved come-uppance at the hands of the electorate leaving us with a mountain to climb to recover any credible voice on matters European.

    The tragic consequence of the lack of liberal engagement with the issues (and in consequence, the support given to some really, really bad policies like the Euro) has been that the EU has evolved in a direction that becomes more and more difficult for liberals to stomach. Apart from certain long-standing issues like the CAP we now have the shocking result of >50% youth unemployment in several countries, the destruction of the Greek economy and side-lining of democracy whenever it suits the bigger players. Hence some of those who are the most outspoken opponents of the EU like Douglas Carswell of UKIP count themselves as ‘liberals’, just not Lib Dems.

    For the record I think you’re mistaken to conclude that, “De Gaulle’s alternate vision of a Europe of Nation States has become the de facto model. Surely it is precisely the nation states that have been so circumscribed in their powers as a result of the Eurozone crisis with Greece as Exhibit A but also Ireland, Spain, Portugal etc. And that’s probably not an accident; there is credible evidence that it was planned as a way to foist an extreme version of neoliberalism onto Europe over and marginalise the democratic freedoms of it citizens.


  • Richard Underhill 4th Aug '15 - 3:37pm

    Times have changed. Countries that were invaded or defeated in World War II lost some confidence in their nationality. Part of what De Gaulle was trying to do after the war was rebuiding natioanl pride. In the process he spent a lot of money re-inventing nuclear weapons and doing dirty testing.

  • Simon Hebditch 4th Aug '15 - 7:12pm

    I have long supported the development of the EU and Britain’s role within it. I voted for continued membership in the 1975 referendum. In idealistic terms, the logic points to “ever closer union” and the creation of a united states of Europe. I accept that it is difficult how this large scale 28 nation community could move towards a federal set up.

    However, the fact is that the recent crises in the Eurozone illustrate that there are fundamental flaws both in the operation of the Euro and in the surrounding architecture of the zone. It must either move towards federalism itself and create a common fiscal policy and budgetary policy or it will have to struggle with the fact that the southern countries will never be able to compete with the surplus countries of the north.

    My adherence to the European project has been rather tested by the farce of the Eurozone/Greece so called negotiations so frankly am not sure whether we should want to be a member of such a club! I know that we are outside the inner club but we are all associated with the developments that have been happening.

  • Steve Comer 5th Aug '15 - 1:02am

    Mike: You praise “De Gaulle’s alternate vision of a Europe of Nation States” but the problem is whilst that might have worked in De Gaulle’s time in a Union of 6 countries that all bordered each other, you cannot run an EU of 28 nations by mere inter-governmentalism. You have to strengthen the democratic institution of the European Parliamant as a counter weight to the power of the Council and Commission.

    Perhaps Tim Farron as Leader will liaise more closely with his opposite number in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, instead of treating him as an embarrassing relative as Clegg did!

  • “The vision of a federal super-state is dead. De Gaulle’s alternate vision of a Europe of Nation States has become the de facto model.”

    This is demonstrably untrue. To give just one example, there is now a move, under a group led by Mario Monti, to replace current funding arrangements for the EU, dependent primarily on national contributions, with “own resources”.


    The aim is to take funding out of the hands of national governments and create a centrally-levied funding base.

    Anyone who wants to advocate continued EU membership should at least do so in a responsible way and not by pretending that the “European Project” of creating a country called Europe and ending the existence of nation states no longer exists. Of course it does.

    We need to have an open and honest debate about whether we in Britain want to be part of that nation, with all it entails.

  • @RC @ jedibeeftrix I am passionately pro the EU, I feel European as well as British and English. But I do not want a single European Nation State, nor do I see the possibility of there ever being one in the lifetime of my children. Defence is with NATO and I don’t want to see any move towards the creation of EU armed forces. Neither do I wish to see any further expansion of the EU’s borders with the possible exceptions of Switzerland and Norway. Belarus, and Ukraine should be hugged close and given a special status but not allowed to join. They should be helped to become peaceful, prosperous buffer states between the EU and Russia. Turkey similarly should be favoured and helped in a long term drive to lead the foundation of a Middle eastern equivalent of the EU, i.e. a moderate, democratic and secular regional economic and social treaty organisation of Muslim countries. The Middle East is currently fighting the equivalent of the 30 years war and the sooner a peace can be brokered in partnership with Iran, Egypt and Saudia Arabia. the better.
    There cannot be an exit mechanism from the Euro, if were it would not be a common currency but a currency union and there is a huge difference. The EMU was a currency union and we did exit – painfully on Black Wednesday. Any country can leave Schengen any time – Switzerland just voted to do that in their referendum – but then they do have proportionately four times more immigrants.

  • Heath knew that the Common Market was a project aimed at political union. He simply lied to everyone. Wilson did the same when the referendum was held. He promised no loss of sovereignty. I remember it well, I voted in it.

    Today, as the EU prepares for an integrated fiscal and monetary policy by 2017, we are headed for federalism. I see no evidence to suggest a union of nation states. The EU Commission seeks to destroy the concept of nation states. It considers nationalism as the biggest obstacle to political union. Federalism will probably have to start with nation states but will probably migrate to party or region representation. That is the way of the EU, creeping progress is hardly noticed by the electorate and it is a long term project.

    The idea that the UK can be a leader is just not credible. Germany will rule the EU as she does already. France will make sure the UK is the cause of all problems and in the best position to fund everything.

  • I see the EU as the greatest threat to democracy since WWI. Once every ministry of government is headed by an unelected bureaucrat there will be no democracy. Currently when decisions are made within the Council, the process involves horse trading, a process in which concessions and financial benefits are negotiated in return for political support. Often the trading has nothing to do with the subject being decided. With 28 politicians eager to extract advantages, it is a recipe for bad decision making. The UK frequently finds itself obliged to accept some unwanted or damaging legislation or initiative. This will only get worse.

    I am passionate about leaving the EU and returning to a system where the people feel some connection with the government. The EU is the main reason for the disconnect that has blighted European politics for decades.

  • Richard Underhill 5th Aug '15 - 5:23pm

    Peter 5th Aug ’15 – 4:57pm As Nancy Seear said we missed our opportunity to lead in the mid 1950s.
    Harold Macmillan’s Lord Chancellor had spelled out the position in Parliament in the early 1960s.
    Consider momentum. The debate in parlaiment was about change. The debate in the referendum was about staying in.
    1975 was very different from now,. The Six had better economic growth than the UK, by abolishing internal tariffs.
    I remember a banner over Reading station. The picture was of some lads in short trousers. The slogan was “Jobs for the boys”. North Sea oil did not come on stream in a big way until the 1980s. The Iron Curtain ended in 1989.
    We should debate where we are now and what we want now.

  • Richard, you are right about debating what we want now.
    Just a few thoughts off the top of my head…

    The Euro is not in a good state. It may yet fail. The UK will not join in the foreseeable future. That means we shall be in the outer, slow track of the integration process. While that is good in my view, as a sceptic, I am convinced that trading with the EU but being free to make our own trade deals with the rest of the world would be our strongest possible position. I can’t see why that logic would appear wrong to a non-sceptic.

    That is the economic case. In terms of democracy, political accountability and connection with the electorate, it would be good to see our legislation being debated in our own parliament. Do you remember when debates on all aspects of government took place each day and these were reported in the newspapers and on the BBC news?

    We never hear about the legislative process in the Commission or European Parliament. I think that is deliberate. This is why we have a political disconnect today but those who do not remember pre-EU times have no conception of full, transparent democracy.

    So, I am clear about what I want for the future. We can cooperate with the EU without being ruled by it.

  • Steve Comer 6th Aug '15 - 4:52pm

    Peter is right “We never hear about the legislative process in the Commission or European Parliament.” The only coverage of the EU is based on summits and crises, there is no coverage of the work being done by MEPs on an ongoing basis.
    Yet if you pick up an Irish newspaper you will see precisely this sort of coverage, if the Irish Times and the Irish Independent can cover EU affairs seriously why not their UK namesakes?

  • Steve – It is all part of the creeping integration. After decades of hiding the power of the EU, the sudden reporting of legislation going through the EU would shock most of the electorate. We can’t have honesty when it comes to EU politics.

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