Danny Alexander MP writes: We shouldn’t fritter away our EU influence when we can lead drive for jobs and growth

As the House of Lords debates the EU Referendum Bill, you may be forgiven for thinking that the Coalition Government has already legislated for a referendum. In fact we did – in 2011 Parliament passed the EU Act which holds that there will be a referendum if there is a transfer of powers from the UK to the EU. This is a sensible approach which means that the British people will get their say in a referendum when our terms of membership change.

At the time, Conservative Ministers strongly supported the EU Act and rejected attempts by their own backbenchers to have a referendum before the next general election. David Cameron warned that an immediate in/out referendum could pose “a danger” and that “we will miss the real opportunity to further our national interest”. William Hague went even further to call it the “wrong question at the wrong time” that would create “additional economic uncertainty in this country”.

So what’s changed?

Put simply, UKIP-panicked, eurosceptic backbenchers are demanding that the Conservatives out-UKIP UKIP. As much as they have tried, the Conservative leadership cannot satisfy the insatiable desire of some backbenchers to ‘bang on about Europe’. They were offered a referendum in 2017 but extraordinarily do not trust their own Prime Minister enough to keep his word. Instead, to manage an internal rebellion, we are faced with a Bill that would damage Britain’s economic recovery by undermining investment for global firms who see Britain as a secure platform for the whole EU market.

The truth is that this Bill is a half-baked solution and abysmally drafted. What if the Conservatives’ promised grand renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership is not complete by 2017? Will the referendum still take place? Moreover, the Bill has been criticised by the Electoral Commission as the question it poses to the electorate is potentially misleading. Given the totemic importance of our EU membership, the House of Lords is justified, indeed obliged, to fulfil its duty in properly scrutinising such legislation.

We will continue to support a referendum on membership in the event of a transfer of powers from the UK to the EU, exactly as envisaged in the legislation we passed 2 years ago, and as we promised in 2010. Holding a referendum before then is irresponsible because, as William Hague put it, “there is huge change happening in Europe, but we don’t know, nor does anybody else know, where those are leading”. We should not fritter away our influence in Europe on an inward-looking renegotiation to an artificial timetable when we have never had a better opportunity to lead the drive for jobs and growth across the EU.

Whenever a referendum takes place, Liberal Democrats will, of course, campaign for the UK to remain a member of the European Union because it is in our national interest. Millions of British jobs are linked to our trade with the EU, and being in Europe gives us more strength when negotiating trade deals with global players like the US, China, India and Brazil. We are the party of in – In Europe, In Work. In Government, we are concentrating on securing our economic recovery, cutting taxes for the lowest paid and creating millions more jobs. The quickest way to throw all this away would be to leave the EU.

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22 Comments

  • So why not just oppose the bill then? I agree on the substance but we’ve looked like running scared for months. Come out and make these arguments instead of relying on the Lords to do the sneaky.

    I’d put it like this: a referendum isn’t a policy, it’s a means. Look at Alex Salmond, he won a majority on a call for independence, with a referendum the way to do it. Likewise, there’s only moral authority for an EU referendum if a party (or parties) wins a majority on a better off out ticket, to my knowledge not a single MP has ever been elected where this is the party policy. We should also criticse the uncertainty of the 2017 deadline for businesses, as global players will go elsewhere or hold back in the interim.

    So these are fine words, but if you mean them get off the fence and oppose the Referendum Bill.

  • The Lords debate was peppered with references to the huge majorities for the bill in the Commons. It must have felt like fun to talk as long as possible then mess around in the voting lobbies without actually registering an opinion, but it really looks daft to chicken out and leave it to the Lords to do the dirty work (Patrick Cormack and a cast of thousands).

    We are going to have something like this stupid referendum because the whole pre-UKIP polity has been timid. So European elections are a sideshow, a massive protest vote or a proxy opionion poll. We should be ashamed and embarrassed – as a party and as a country – that UKIP might get more votes than anybody else and send people to Brussels (and Strasbourg, still, for God’s sake) who have no intention to use the real power that Parliament has to proper effect.

  • I agree with Matthew Oakeshott’s speech in the Lords today. He said:

    “There’s no need for a referendum on Europe when there is a clear choice at the general election. If you want to come out of Europe you vote for UKIP. If you want to stay in you vote Lib Dem or Labour. If you don’t know or don’t care, you vote Conservative.”

    Hey few words, what a lot of sense.

  • As a Scottish Lib Dem. I have a real problem. I am sympathetic to the vision for an independent Scotland but concerned at the lack of a map of how we get there and what we do if we succeed. Now we have the added problem of having a independence referendum before we have a in/ out vote on Europe. Lets not pretend- Labour will commit to a referendum once the General Election is under way. My guess is that there are many people in Scotland who will see how UKIP do at the Euro elections in the spring and then make a decision on independence referendum when they have a better idea of how things are going in England.

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Jan '14 - 11:21pm

    Lots of talk of UKIP on here, but not much about the why. The ugly truth is that UKIP’s rise is a symptom not a cause and until there is some discussion of those causes we will get nowhere. I don’t particularly like UKIP, I don’t plan to vote for them. However they did not just appear out of thin air. They are, to my mind, not all that different to the Referendum Party that sprung up in the mid-1990s. At times in the past few months the pro-EU arguments have skated treacherously close to a suggestion that the public just don’t know what’s good for them. Dry economic stats get trotted out as if they will change the evidence of people’s eyes. Ultimately if people don’t feel that the EU’s terms are in their interests, they will vote accordingly.

    And indeed Mr Alexander talks the talk that has signally failed to win over people to the pro-EU argument. ‘we are faced with a Bill that would damage Britain’s economic recovery by undermining investment for global firms who see Britain as a secure platform for the whole EU market.’ Put another way, integration is treated and presented an exercise in the corporate interest rather that the people’s interest per se. The EU is not something that fits into the classic left/right mould. I sense (and that’s all it is – I claim no evidence) that the public at large across the political spectrum has just had a gutful of the corporate interest being placed over all others and no longer believe that what’s good for business is likely to be good for them. Think energy bills as an example of how people think of corporates.

    I was struck by a recent article in the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/03/romanians-and-bulgarians-in-the-uk-react-to-immigration-furore) that asked Romanians and Bulgarians to react to recent hostile media coverage. The part below by a Romanian in particular caught my eye as showing up the precise problem that the pro-EU camp has nowadays:

    ‘As a founding member of EU, the UK had the right to invest, travel and develop many businesses in Romania. The largest shopping malls in Bucharest were developed and owned by English people. HRH Prince Charles himself invested and bought houses in Transylvania while many agribusinesses from England have recently found incredible business opportunities in Romania by buying large swathes of fertile land which cannot be found in England….These opportunities must be reciprocated as we will not accept being treated second class citizens..’

    It’s right there! In short, open borders with, in this case, Romania is, ‘for,’ shopping mall owners, big agribusiness and the royal family. I would hope that at a bare minimum pro-Europeans can at least understand why the man on the street might find that something of an abstraction as he goes about his life. It is extremely difficult to see how this is meaningful reciprocity scaled across the EU given the gaping asymmetries that are plain.

    Now I do not for a moment believe that an exit from the EU will mean an end to corporatism in the UK – anyone who believes that the EU will usher in a golden age asks to be deceived. However if the EU’s benefits are regarded and (importantly) presented as little more than benefits for capital then I’m not sure why anyone is surprised that the reaction takes the form of UKIP. UKIP might well have its share of characters, sure – but their issues, wage stagnation, casualised labour, access to housing are entirely consistent with trends in the economy that have seen returns to capital prioritised over returns to labour. And the EU, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a part of those trends. Politics at its most basic is the allocation of power, all UKIP is is a reaction to what is seen, again rightly or wrongly, as an ineffective allocation of power by many. UKIP are a symptom of and reaction to trends not their cause.

    An EU, ‘for,’ business is going to be a very hard sell and I am consistently surprised by how seem not to appreciate that the EU is regarded, fair or not, as a part of today’s corporatist agenda. Whatever the stats say.

  • LJP UKIP, of course, pre-dated Referendum Party, which was short-lived, and really just a Goldsmith fan club.

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Jan '14 - 1:25am

    Sue Render
    “There’s no need for a referendum on Europe when there is a clear choice at the general election. If you want to come out of Europe you vote for UKIP. If you want to stay in you vote Lib Dem or Labour. If you don’t know or don’t care, you vote Conservative.”

    The trouble with that is that a general election is not a referendum or a single issue question. We see constant argument, including on this site, about the real nature of UKIP, their dubious policies and associations, none of which would be relevant if we thought that voting for UKIP was really just a vote on the single issue of coming out of the EU. UKIP are regularly challenged on Today over their policies on other issues and attacked if they don’t have any proposals for any particular policy besides getting out of the EU. None of those attacks is unreasonable; but to suggest that the existence of UKIP takes the place of a referendum is just dishonest.

  • Every empire collapses eventually, this is a fact of history. The EU ’empire’ will be no exception, at some point it will split up. We have to learn the lessons of history. What appears to happen is that empires collapse from within, or at least become fragile from within, and then some external event shatters them, The external event would not have been a significant problem while the empire is in its prime. Corruption and greed are factors in decline.

    However whilst the empire exists it is very difficult to imagine life without it. There are economies of scale, trade flourishes, and law and order are upheld over a wide area.

    We have to ensure that the EU lasts as long as possible, and that the historically inevitable collapse does not occur in our lifetime, or that of our children. How to ensure that it lasts? Any suggestions?
    Playing devil’s advocate, obviously.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Jan '14 - 4:23am

    Lib Dems need to speak out for the people of the UK if they want to get somewhere. We don’t need to go uber-nationalist, but at the moment we sound like the opposite and in a world based on survival and “tribes” this is a very big mistake.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Jan '14 - 5:19am

    It’s not about slogans or better communications either. It’s the policies that need to change. To take a quote from Danny’s piece above:

    “Whenever a referendum takes place, Liberal Democrats will, of course, campaign for the UK to remain a member of the European Union because it is in our national interest.”

    We can’t just fight for the EU regardless. I know some people will, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I won’t vote for a super EU loyalist Lib Dem in the Euros.

  • Eddie Sammon suggests :
    “Lib Dems need to speak out for the people of the UK if they want to get somewhere”
    I agree, and indeed such a move would be refreshingly novel.

  • There’s nothing inevitable about the decay or fall of states. States have “fallen” (i.e., been replaced by other states or other régimes in the same state) in the past because of a succession of misfortunes, not because of “historical inevitability.” The European Union isn’t an “empire,” but something between a multinational confederation and a federation. There’s nothing intrinsically unstable about federations; the Swiss have been going strong for hundreds of years. The UK itself is a multinational conglomeration.

    The EU will have succeeded if it forges a common European identity and a sense that the common good of Europe is more important than petty regional agendas. If reactionary, tribal nationalism triumphs over that sense of the common good, then of course it will have failed. But all politicians should be careful how they feed the nationalist beast in pursuit of their short-term interests; such beasts, once roused, devour those who have nursed them. Those who sow the wind reap the whirlwind.

  • David-1 11th Jan ’14 – 6:23am
    ‘There’s nothing inevitable about the decay or fall of states. ‘

    I am not talking about states, I am talking about empires. Empires fall because of their internal rifts, followed or simultaneously associated with external attack.

    In reverse order of size, here is a list of empires. Not a single one of them now remains.

    British Empire, Mongol Empire, Russian Empire, Spanish Empire, Umayyad Caliphate, Qing Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, French Colonial Empire, Abbasid Caliphate, Portuguese Empire, Rashidun Caliphate, Empire of Brazil, Achaemenid Empire (Persia), Japanese Empire, Sassanid Empire (Persia), Ming Dynasty, Roman Empire, Han Dynasty, Nazi Germany, Göktürk Khaganate, Mauryan Empire, Golden Horde Khanate, Tang Dynasty, Macedonian Empire, Ottoman Empire, Mughal Empire

    Our own British empire was to an extent a federation. Just like the EU bringing trade, law and order, systems of governance, and unification of defence.

    We can semantically describe the EU as a federation, however it is already well on the way to ever greater union. It bears all the hallmarks of a nascent empire. It will have a unified armed forces soon, and unified police forces. Trade internally is already unified, laws essentially are unified through Strasbourg, and the freedom of people to move internally is greatly to be welcomed, even though there are some short term re-adjustments to be leveled out for example wages and housing.

    How long to empires last?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_empires

    Of the 167 empires listed, 85 which is almost exactly half lasted less than 200 years.
    43 lasted 200 to 400 years, and above 400 years the numbers tail off rapidly.
    So can we say that a typical ‘average’ empire duration would be 100 years or so.
    If so then the EU is already half way through its life span, or a quarter if you take the 200 year figure.

    Just like peak oil, or indeed peak anything, you do not know that you are at the peak until you are on the downward slope after the peak. There are worrying signs that the peak-EU is close already, with the rise of the far right in Greece and France and Holland, and eurosceptic parties springing up almost everywhere. In order to counteract this, do we need to slow down on the federalisation drive? Do we need a period of entrenchment? Should we take the rational decision to halt further enlargement until such time as the economies of existing states, including the job market and wages, have equalised across the EU?

    If we are to continue with the unification vision, do we need a period of reflection, and clear insight? The dynamics of empire do indeed apply, we ignore them at our peril.

    Shelley’s Ozymandias

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

  • A few words, but worth repeating!

    Sue Render 10th Jan ’14 – 10:12pm
    I agree with Matthew Oakeshott’s speech in the Lords today. He said:

    “There’s no need for a referendum on Europe when there is a clear choice at the general election. If you want to come out of Europe you vote for UKIP. If you want to stay in you vote Lib Dem or Labour. If you don’t know or don’t care, you vote Conservative.”

    Hey few words, what a lot of sense.

  • What appals me is the lack of simple business nous of these Tories.

    Leaving the EU would discourage some inward investors from the UK but one thing that really scares off all of them is uncertainty. Saying that we /might/ leave the EU in three years time means that their plans would have have to cope with two (or possibly more) scenarios – a surefire deterrent for anyone seeking to start or expand their EU base.

  • David Evershed 11th Jan '14 - 12:56pm

    Danny Alexander rightly points out that “in 2011 Parliament passed the EU Act which holds that there will be a referendum if there is a transfer of powers from the UK to the EU”.

    However, as I understand it a rederendum under the EU Act will be a vote to accept the transfer of pwoer to the EU or not. So this law is a one way rachet which only provides for powers to be transferred from the UK to the EU.

    Lib Dem policy is for maximum localism and for laws to be passed at the most local level rather than centralsised at the EU (subsidiarity in EU language).

    Consequently there is a need for a mechanism to approve the transfer of powers back to the UK as well as the EU Act which only provides for the transfer of powers to the EU.

    Should the UK negotiate transfer of powers from the EU to the UK

  • @ David Evershed
    ” Should the UK negotiate transfer of powers from the EU to the UK”
    Seriously?. Here’s what happened to the Polish, when they try to repatriate powers back, from the EU commission. And as you watch Guy Verhofstadt, scream and wave his arms in anger, remember this, ….he is a Liberal.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=palbAPN5irk
    Transfer of powers from the EU to UK?. Nah,…David… not going to happen, the sovereignty is on a one way trip.

  • jedibeeftrix 11th Jan '14 - 2:20pm

    “Should the UK negotiate transfer of powers from the EU to the UK”

    Without a doubt, yes.

  • Joe King: I’m appalled that you went to all that effort in the service of historical illiteracy. You have confused at least three different types of state that have been called “empires”; super-states formed by the addition of border territory to a central state; colonial empires; and states that are merely called “empires” because their ruler takes the title of “emperor.” All of that is quite irrelevant, however, since the European Union is none of the above.

  • David-1
    Rather than getting bogged down in the terminology of what is and what is not an empire, can you at least consider their finite lifespan?
    Do you believe that the EU will last for thousands of years, or hundreds of years, or tens of years?
    Do you have any sense of historical context?
    Do you have any thoughts regarding the eventual geographical extent of the EU? Will it grow to a large extent and then contract?
    Have you had any thoughts whatever regarding demographic changes within the EU states, changing predominance of differing cultural memes, the evolution of societies?

    If we are to plan ahead for the future of a healthy and prosperous EU, we need to consider all of these things, and not to default to lazy complacency. I doubt that anybody would consider the EU to be healthy at the current time.
    Something has gone wrong, badly wrong, and we need to try to understand why that is. It is useful to examine historical analogies, accepting that such analogies will not be a 100% match.

    I am somewhat surprised that you think that I am wasting my effort. We must really work at it, strive to better understand what mistakes and opportunities there are today, with an understanding of historical precedent.
    “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it,”

    David, I look forward to a well-considered and detailed reply, rather than a brief dismissal. The future of the EU is at stake. If we wish it to thrive, it deserves an amount of effort from ourselves.

  • @David Evershed – “there is a need for a mechanism to approve the transfer of powers back to the UK as well as the EU Act which only provides for the transfer of powers to the EU.”

    It is fairly certain that that omission is deliberate. After all how many politicians who support the “UK out” referendum position have called for a referendum on the government’s decisions for the UK to formally “opt out” of EU JHA laws that we have ALREADY had on the UK statute books for the better part of 20 years and all of which we agreed to even though we have vetoed any or all of them?

    It would appear they don’t want to run the risk of losing that referendum as it would scupper their “UK out” campaign were the electorate to avail of the option to support remaining “opted-in” to the current EU JHA laws that we are signed up to at the moment.

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