Embrace the Elephant

The elephant is of course that big, and growing, elephant in the corner of the sitting room: Brexit. Now that Project Fear has become Project Here, it is time for us in the Lib Dems to be much more open about our belief that Britain’s place lies back at the heart of Europe.

Ever since the Brexit vote I’ve been reasonably sure this time would come. Voting to leave was a mistake, and its costs would sooner or later become apparent. The ideological nature of the vote was such that many people would cling stubbornly to their belief that it was right – for some years, I thought. But once it began to crumble, it would crumble quickly. I was right about the trajectory, wrong about the timing. I thought it would be at least another couple of years. (I didn’t allow for the damage to be so deep, or the government to be so negligent.)

As long as the bulk of Brexit voters held to their beliefs, and, equally, as long as the bulk of the British population continued to be hoodwinked by the idea that to campaign for our beliefs was somehow undemocratic, we were probably right to soft pedal on it. I have thought for a long time that the backlash would outweigh the potential gains; but I believed we only needed to be patient.

Our policy has become clear with  “Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe”, though the mainstream media have been, as usual, exceedingly quiet about it. Our leadership on the whole has remained reticent, but now the time for reticence has passed. There was some indication of this at the spring conference – the European passages of Ed’s speech were highly optimistic and were loudly and enthusiastically applauded. (Not reported in the mainstream press of course – maybe Ed was counting on that.)

That shows that popularity within the party is high, and now opinion polls are regularly showing solid majorities saying Brexit has failed, the costs are too high, it was the wrong choice. Opinion is with us. We have to contend with the right wing media and the Rees-Mogg Tendency: but we always will have to. But now is the time to make it bold. The time is now for us to embrace the elephant.

It remains a technically awkward policy to sell. It’s difficult to make a catchy slogan out of “repair, rebuild confidence, trade, single market”. And a great deal of prior work needs to be done in this country, as I’ve said before, to make us fit for them to accept us. Perhaps there is a slogan available: coined in an inspired moment by Sally Burnell: “from Brexit to Fixit”.

* Rob Parsons is a Lib Dem member in Lewes. He blogs at http://acomfortableplace.blogspot.co.uk. He curates Liberal Quotes on Facebook

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65 Comments

  • The policy has indeed become clear. It’s a pro-Brexit position, so just another variation on the “Make Brexit work” nonsense of the other major parties.

  • Peter Davies 27th May '23 - 11:25am

    The electorate turns over at about a million a year. The leave vote was heavily biased towards the elderly. There are already more people alive who voted Remain than voted Leave. Add to that, those now on the register who were too young in 2016 overwhelmingly think Brexit was a bad idea. Many of those who didn’t know who to believe and abstained will probably also have worked out who was lying. It doesn’t require a lot of actual Brexit voters to have changed their minds to get the sort of polling we now see.

  • Michael Cole 27th May '23 - 11:34am

    Quite right Rob. Our leadership should be actively campaigning on ‘Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe’. Daisy Cooper has already hinted at this.

    This, together with a clear campaign for ‘Fair Votes’ would be not only attractive but distinguish us clearly from the Tory and Labour Parties.

    Incidentally, we are constantly being asked by the media whether, in the event of a ‘hung’ Parliament, we would form a coalition with those other two Parties. Quite rightly, we dismiss categorically any arrangement with the Conservatives.

    As for Labour, it is not possible to give any kind of answer until we have seen their ‘plans’. In any case, coalition is highly unlikely; but a precondition of this or a confidence and supply arrangement would be an unequivocal commitment to the introduction of PR. But the leader of their Party is utterly against this.

  • Duncan Brack 27th May '23 - 12:10pm

    Good article, Rob, though actually the BBC did report the EU part of Ed’s speech, under the headline ‘Repair our broken relationship with Europe to prosper’, which is exactly the kind of coverage I would have thought we would welcome. Paul R’s comment is nonsense: the stages described in ‘Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe’ are good in themselves, but are also necessary steps on the way to rejoining.

  • Peter Martin 27th May '23 - 1:04pm

    The “Brexit is a Failure” mantra has been increasingly uttered in recent months as stagflation, a combination of high inflation and recession, has taken its toll on all of us.

    The problem, for Remainers / Rejoiners, is that the evidence to suggest that the cause of our problems is Brexit is weak – to say the least. Germany, which as far as I know is still an EU member, has exactly the same issues and, if we are to believe the IMF’s forecast, it may well have even greater problems than ourselves.

    “The IMF has predicted that Germany will be the weakest of the world’s advanced economies, shrinking 0.1% this year, after it upgraded its forecast for the UK from minus 0.3% to growth of 0.4%.”

    Even the much quoted net immigration figures aren’t an indication of failure per se. The remainer argument, before the Brexit vote, was that too few workers would want to come to an ultra depressed post EU UK with its pound worth less than both a dollar and a euro. Now many are saying that too many want to come.

    You can’t have it both ways.

    The point is that we can now decide how many for ourselves rather than having a decision imposed by undemocratic treaty obligations. I personally am comfortable with the current level providing we upgrade our infrastructure to accommodate a higher population. More houses, roads, railways, better sewage systems etc.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-65707206

  • It remains a technically awkward policy to sell.

    I think most informed people outside of the “new elite” can see that rejoining the ‘single market’ would put us back on the pathway to poverty…

    ‘Policy Brief #2014/02: 20 years of the European single market: growth effects of EU integration’:
    https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/en/publications/publication/did/20-years-of-the-european-single-market-growth-effects-of-eu-integration/

    The smallest advantages from the growing European integration accrue to Portugal and the United Kingdom with annually €20 and €10 per inhabitant, respectively (see Figure 3).

    That €10 average annual gain in real GDP per capita represented about £500m in total – less than a twentieth of our then EU membership fee.

    By the time we saw sense and left our annual goods deficit with the EU had reached £94 billion…

    ‘Why has the UK trade in goods deficit widened in real terms?’:
    https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/balanceofpayments/articles/whyhastheuktradeingoodsdeficitwidenedinrealterms/2018-09-24

    From 1998 to 2000 the UK had an average £3.5 billion trade in goods surplus with the EU. In 2001 the surplus turned into a deficit and by 2017 the trade balance with the EU was £93.7 billion in deficit with most EU countries contributing to the deficit.

    That failure as a graph…

    ‘Trade in Goods (T): EU: Balance’:
    https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/balanceofpayments/timeseries/l87q/mret

    To pay for that huge deficit we had to borrow the money back and sell off our best companies one by one.

  • Duncan Brack 27th May ’23 – 12:10pm:
    …actually the BBC did report the EU part of Ed’s speech, under the headline ‘Repair our broken relationship with Europe to prosper’, which is exactly the kind of coverage I would have thought we would welcome.

    One can always rely on the Brussels Broadcasting Corporation to report pro-EU/anti-Brexit opinions while cen-soring by omission facts that run counter to the rejoin ‘narrative’. So, for example, they don’t report on our record exports to the EU, or (for over a month now) Ukraine’s recent ’defection’ to join the CPTPP.

    ‘UK trade: April 2022’:
    https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/balanceofpayments/bulletins/uktrade/april2022

    EU exports have increased for the third consecutive month in April 2022 and are at the highest levels since records began.

    ‘Ukraine’s delegation to the negotiations on accession to Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership appointed’ [May 2023]:
    https://www.kmu.gov.ua/en/news/utvoreno-delehatsiiu-ukrainy-dlia-uchasti-u-perehovorakh-pro-pryiednannia-do-uhody-pro-transtykhookeanske-partnerstvo

    ‘Canada backs Ukraine’s application to join trans-Pacific trade pact’ [26th. May 2023]:
    https://news.yahoo.com/canada-backs-ukraines-application-join-142120792.html

    “Following the UK’s accession, as more economies express interest in joining, Canada welcomes Ukraine’s application to join CPTPP,” Ng said on Twitter.

  • David Evans 27th May '23 - 4:58pm

    Jeff,

    You know that our “record exports to the EU” are due to a one off import and export deal in gas due to their need for replacement supplies to compensate for the loss of the Russian pipelines. To omit this key fact is much more censoring by omission from you than any BBC issues.

    It really doesn’t do you credit.

    David

  • Duncan Brack 27th May '23 - 5:16pm

    One has to admire the persistence of people like Peter Martin and Jeff in trying to pretend Brexit has been an overwhelming success; I guess it’s just a puzzle why ever-smaller numbers of people in the country seem to believe them. Just for the record, though, the trade figures Jeff quotes from a year ago are in money terms, not real terms (i.e. not adjusted for inflation), and of course he doesn’t point out that imports from the EU are significantly higher, so that in February this year the UK trade deficit with the EU (exports minus imports) hit a record high (ONS figures). And by claiming that Ukraine is ‘defecting’ to apply to to join the CPTPP, I guess Jeff is implying that they’ve stopped being interested in the EU, but this is of course not true. Ukraine is not surprisingly trying to boost its ties with other countries while its EU accession process proceeds; joining the CPTPP is much easier than joining the EU, as it’s a much simpler arrangement. There’s no ‘defection’ here, just sensible foreign policy.

  • Martin Gray 27th May '23 - 5:44pm

    @Duncan…One has to admire the persistence of people like Peter Martin and Jeff in trying to pretend Brexit has been an overwhelming success”….
    For many – EU membership didn’t make one iota of a difference in their lives… Asking people to accept the status quo was never going to be a great sell.
    There’s never been any deep affection for the EU for millions of voters – EU elections were on a pitiful turnout, the only time voters came out in significant numbers was when they were given a chance to leave ..
    If rejoining mens’s eurozone status as a condition – good luck with that …

  • Peter Martin 27th May '23 - 6:02pm

    Duncan Brack,

    You’re possibly thinking of someone else who’s claimed Brexit to be an overwhelming success. FWIW I don’t think it has made much difference. We’re having the same problems other European countries are experiencing.

    ” imports from the EU are significantly higher, so that in February this year the UK trade deficit with the EU (exports minus imports) hit a record high ”

    Why is this a bad thing? If they want to swap more things that they produce for fewer things that we produce, who is getting the better deal?

    @ Rob Parson,

    ” Germany took on the absolutely mammoth task of weaning itself off Russian gas; if we’d tried something similar we be on our backs in the basement now”

    There’s always been a single market, in the literal sense of the term, in oil and gas. The reduction in supply to Germany has a knock on effect for everyone else. The price goes up for everyone so we end up paying exactly the same
    as Germany. It was just as much our problem as Germany’s.

    “The whole point of Brexit was to enable the election of governments who didn’t have to bother with such responsibilities.”

    I think you might be guilty of believing your own propaganda! This was never the view of those of us on the left who opposed the EU. Events have proved us right about that.

  • Peter Martin 27th May '23 - 6:09pm

    @ Jeff,

    “To pay for that huge deficit we had to borrow the money back and sell off our best companies one by one.”

    Not really. It’s true that the current account and capital accounts do have to balance. And it is also true that the purchase of our capital assets does count as a capital flow. If we try to keep the currency fixed we could have a balance of payments problem, one way or the other. If we let it float, ie allow the £ to vary in value, the system is self adjusting. However, we could still make it much harder for overseas buyers to buy up our capital assets. The system would still self adjust.

    No-one from the UK goes off to China, for example, and asks to borrow back the money they’ve accumulated selling us things. They’ve earned the ££. It’s their decision to make. Their problem about what to do with them. They can either spend them on UK made goods and services, buy government bonds, or buy the things on the capital market that we allow them to buy.

  • @Duncan Brack

    Unfortunately, my comments are not nonsense. They are entirely accurate. There is no commitment to rejoining the EU – at any stage – in the policy document, therefore it is a pro-Brexit document and one that is basically touting variants on “‘Make Brexit work”.

    The document also ignores the obvious point that the EU countries are not going to facilitate any variant of a pro-Brexit government. Our Brexiters defined us as a “hostile force” to the EU and the EU countries aren’t going to facilitate any variant of pro-Brexit government.

    The section about “Single Market Membership” is also just dead wrong. Single Market Membership is open to EU countries only. Some countries have partial access to the Single Market (but not actual membership of it) via the arrangements the document describes but it even gets that wrong. The current EFTA countries have access to the Single Market via the EEA but the EU countries are under no obligation to grant such access to any new country that joins EFTA. Nor indeed is there an obvious reason why they should since the EEA was set up to make it easy for the existing EFTA countries to transition to EU membership should they choose that at a future date, not to help out a country that has left the EU and is hostile to the EU countries.

  • Rob Parsons 27th May '23 - 9:50pm

    @Peter 6.02 pm
    If Germany is not buying gas from Russia, that means there’s more for the rest of us, therefore the price goes down not up – I assume the law of supply and demand works for left wingers as well as right wingers.

    And, OK, you’re a left wing opponent of the EU – fair enough. But the left wing didn’t bring us Brexit, the right wing did. And they didn’t do it for left wing purposes, whatever they were, they did it for right wing purposes – which are very evident from government actions since. My critique stands.

  • Chris Moore 28th May '23 - 8:27am

    @Paul R : The UK is not “hostile” to Europe or vice versa. Don’t exaggerate.

  • Chris Moore 28th May '23 - 8:31am

    Likewise, both the right-wing and left-wing Brexiteer views of the EU were often absurdly stereotypical and exaggerated. And, of course, often in direct contradiction.

  • George Thomas 28th May '23 - 8:37am

    Brexit vote was made up of quite the broad spectrum of voters and, regardless of who was directing thing, it was built on foundation of people who felt like they had nothing to lose.

    ‘Levelling up’ was a term without much substance but the substance it did have a) reflected that many places felt like they’re being left behind and b) actually went and dropped these places further back – see Western Mail’s headline yesterday of Wales being declared worse off after levelling up, see HS2 being made smaller and smaller until effectively a London project.

    Sure we can say that Brexit was not the correct answer but no point in talking about the elephant unless you’re also going to speak about why many were attracted to it in the first place and where money has/hasn’t been spent since.

  • David Evans 28th May '23 - 8:40am

    Rob,

    I don’t think the gas market is quite as simple as you imply. Firstly there are at least two markets one in pipeline distributed gas supplies and another in seabourne tanker supplies. Different infrastructure is needed by the receiving nation to handle the delivery and so the two supplies are not immediately interchangeable.

    Germany and other nations reducing their demand for Russian gas reduced the price of that, and so that price fell, but we weren’t buying it. Of course they also increased demand for tanker transported supplies which meant the prices we were paying rose. Finally, increasing stocks to provide extra security further increased prices.

    In the longer run, prices have again settled much closer together, but building of infrastructure takes time and that leads to inelastic supply, with big price hikes.

    One point where peter Martin’s argument is seriously flawed is where he opines “If they want to swap more things that they produce for fewer things that we produce, who is getting the better deal?” Quite simply Peter, it isn’t a swap, there is a substantial money transfer from the UK to the EU as well. That’s the problem.

    That is where Peter’s left wing economics doesn’t reflect reality.

  • Duncan Brack 28th May '23 - 8:45am

    Paul R, again you are wrong. Paras 2.0.5 and 2.0.6 in the paper set out our commitment to rejoin, and the motion accompanying the paper was even clearer: ‘Conference therefore reaffirms the Liberal Democrats’ support for a longer-term objective of UK membership of the EU, as set out in the September 2020 conference motion, ‘The UK and Europe’.’ The problem is not the party’s policy but the leadership’s lack of interest in promoting it.

  • Peter Martin 28th May '23 - 10:50am

    @ David Evans,

    Our points about gas prices are very much in line. If there is a reduction in supply to Western Europe prices will rise for everyone. The rise will be highest as the initial shock is felt but as alternative sources become more economically viable due to these higher prices we can expect some reduction to follow. This is what we are seeing now.

    Asking a question isn’t the same as expressing an opinion. You’re right that there is a problem mainly because most people think there is a problem. They tend to equate a deficit in trade to a loss in their own personal finances. This is the motivation for the German wish to run their huge much vaunted trade surpluses. These peaked around 2017 and were the cause of most of the problems in the EU around the time we were voting on membership.

    As you say, the money transfers associated with surpluses create debts for others. They weren’t such a problem for us because we had a floating currency, except that many considered them to be, but they were a real problem for many of the less affluent countries in the eurozone. The contradiction being that Germany wanted (still wants?) to run large surpluses but set rules in the eurozone to prevent others running the matching deficits. This is more a point about basic arithmetic rather than one based on any left wing political viewpoint.

  • Anybody who’s been tempted by a nationalistic mercantilist understanding of trade deficits and surpluses – i.e. deficit = bad, surplus = good – should read Ricardo on trade and understand his great Law of Comparative Advantage.

    Trade benefits both parties, whichever is in deficit.

    Trade barriers reduce overall wealth.

    There is nothing positive to be said about the increased trading red tape post-Brexit. And apparently the Tory government wants even more.

  • Peter Martin 28th May '23 - 11:34am

    “….however the very real issue is hostility towards the EU from a dominant sector of the Conservative Party.”

    It is curious how the major political parties have reversed their positions on the EU. It was the Labour Party which, in 1992, ran on a policy of withdrawal from the then EEC. So we may well ask if many of the more traditional supporters have moved away from the party or has the party moved away from the their views?

    The point being that the referendum result could never have been as it was if the opposition to the EU had been solely, or even mainly, confined to the right wing of the Tory Party.

    The EU does have a huge problem with in persuading everyone, not just in the UK, that it hasn’t got beyond itself with the introduction of the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties. What we had before wasn’t perfect but most of us could have lived with the EEC as it was then.

  • Peter Martin 28th May '23 - 11:58am

    @ Chris Moore,

    “… i.e. deficit = bad, surplus = good….”

    Totally disagree with this understanding also. The Liberal Party too at one time.

    However, this is still the dominant view in the EU and particularly so in Germany. The EU isn’t particularly a force for free-er trade in the world economy. The EU is concerned to increase its own exports but the removal of tariffs on imports is seen as a price to be paid rather than a benefit in itself.

    The importation of agricultural produce from outside EU borders is the prime example. This is heavily discouraged by the imposition of high food tariffs.

  • Chris Moore 28th May '23 - 1:55pm

    Yes, Peter, I agree with those criticisms of some attitudes to trade in especially Germany.

    As you’ll also be aware though the EU has scores of free trade agreements with countries around the world and has, in general, been a force behind freeing up trade.

    P

  • Chris Moore 28th May '23 - 2:05pm

    Regarding the hostility towards Europe of part of the right-wing of the Tories and some of the right-wing media:

    This spluttering and tub thumping jingoism provides entertainment for a certain type of voter and reader.

    Meanwhile, at the level of serious everyday contacts and more strategic cooperation, we continue to get on with our very close allies and trading partners in the EU.

    Much of the right-wing bluster strikes me as superficial and naive. But such right-wing virtue-signalling will cost the Tories dear at the next election. At some point, they will grow out of it.

  • Leekliberal 28th May '23 - 6:30pm

    Why has no-one pointed out that the continued silence from the Lib Dem leadership about how we could take practical steps to reduce the damage to our economy from Brexit ensures that we continue to bumble along at around 10 percent in the polls despite our local gover nment victories. We have an issue on which we could carve ourselves a role in the national debate and Ed’s team have funked it. How demoralising is that!

  • I am sick of trying to get the message across that the Lib Dems cannot ape Keir Starmer and deny the reality that increasingly Brexit is seen as a disaster and closer relationship with Europe is a vote winner. We cannot bow to Brexiteers they have done enough damage already.

  • In all the sound and fury, while accepting the economic case for not leaving the EU, some of us were so enthusiastic about UK membership that the “remainers” label just did not cut it. It was about peace, internationalism (including the strengthening of European law), pluralism, celebrating the riches of European culture, facing up to historic injustices on the part of European nation states – and more besides.

  • David Evans 27th May ’23 – 4:58pm:
    You know that our “record exports to the EU” are due to a one off import and export deal in gas due to their need for replacement supplies to compensate for the loss of the Russian pipelines.

    It’s a factor, but you greatly overstate the case. For the whole of 2022 “Gas, natural & manufactured” accounted for 4.2% (£8.15bn) of our £194bn of goods exports to the EU which is just 2.4% of the £340bn total for both goods and services. In the other direction, we’ve imported record amounts of very expensive electricity so the balance of energy trade with the EU was affected rather less.

    Source: ‘Statistics on UK-EU trade’ [11th. May 2023]:
    https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7851/

    To omit this key fact is much more censoring by omission from you than any BBC issues.

    2.4% of exports isn’t a “key fact”. In any case, I was citing the absence on the BBC of any report on this as evidence of censorship by omission. There are many other examples one could cite.

  • Zachary Adam Barker 28th May '23 - 11:20pm

    The Greens are eating us alive on this issue. But our party leadership only cares about what we do in right leaning seats.

    I fear that our party will allow us in left leaning areas to be eaten alive by the Greens because they are so focused on taking on the blues in the right leaning Home Counties.

  • Peter Martin 29th May '23 - 8:42am

    While it is apparent that there is a small percentage of genuine UK based pro-EUers, who are actually in favour of most EU policy, there really isn’t any difference in principle between most erstwhile ‘Remainers’ and Leavers.

    We agreed that we didn’t want the euro. We agreed that the European Parliament was a toothless talking shop. We agreed that the EU was run by the undemocratically accountable European Commission. We didn’t like the EU’s insistence that their laws had supremacy. The question to be decided was whether putting up with all that was worth the economic benefits of freer trade with the EU. Some decided on balance that it was, others disagreed saying, on balance, that it wasn’t.

    When historians look back at the Brexit process they will decide that it started much earlier than the events leading to the 2016 referendum. The writing was on the wall from the time we demanded various opt outs, declined to join the euro, and when Gordon Brown refused to be photographed with the rest of the group of EU bigwigs at the Lisbon Treaty signing. He knew how unpopular this was going to be back home.

    The challenge now for Rejoiners, or Joiners if you prefer, is to persuade us all that *genuine* full-on EU membership is the better option. There’ll be no opt outs, and we’ll very likely have to commit to adopting the euro. Good luck with that!

  • Chris Moore 29th May '23 - 2:05pm

    Hello Peter,

    You’re too sure about the conditions for any UK re-entry.

    It would be a matter of negotiating. When it came down to it, I doubt whether the EU would insist on the Euro. Likewise, we were not the only country with opt outs. So I doubt whether that would be a red line either.

    Participation in the EU offered numerous benefits in addition to the clear plus of the Single Market and Customs’ Union. You are being a tad reductionist, I feel!

  • Rob Parsons 29th May '23 - 2:17pm

    @Peter 8.42 am

    Let me offer my interpretation. “there really isn’t any difference in principle between most erstwhile ‘Remainers’ and Leavers.” – I think that’s true, as a big majority see Brexit as a failure, and a majority now favour closer relations with the EU.

    “We agreed that we didn’t want the euro.” – yes, you’re right.

    “We agreed that the European Parliament was a toothless talking shop.” – No, we didn’t, because it is not. Laws don’t pass without the Parliament passing them.

    “We agreed that the EU was run by the undemocratically accountable European Commission.” Actually we didn’t. Yes, the EU is “run” by the commission – that’s what it’s for. But its powers are arrived at by a democratic process, and it is democratically accountable to the Council of Minsters and the European Parliament for what it does with them.

    “We didn’t like the EU’s insistence that their laws had supremacy.” – this is interesting. Who is “they”? This is typical and inaccurate Leaver rhetoric: when we were in the EU, there was no “they”. We “were” the EU. it suited the UK’s right wing, and especially our press, to describe it as us and them, and millions of people fell for it, including, apparently, you.

    “When historians look back at the Brexit process they will decide that it started much earlier than the events leading to the 2016 referendum.” Yes, you’re right, but not for the reasons you go on to enumerate. The main reason was forty years of lying by the right wing press, not adequately rebutted by anybody sensible. When you’ve been softened up by forty years of uncontested lies, the final lie – in the 2016 referendum – becomes easy to swallow. That’s what happened, and millions of people have clearly now realised how deeply they have been duped.

    “The challenge now for Rejoiners, or Joiners if you prefer, is to persuade us all that *genuine* full-on EU membership is the better option.” – Yes, I’ll happily call myself a “joiner”; and given the way opinion is swaying, it won’t be too long before we are seriously and thankfully on a path to a much closer relationship.

  • Alex Macfie 29th May '23 - 2:19pm

    @Peter Martin: It was in 1983 that Labour ran on a platform of withdrawal from the then EEC. But that’s not the only thing on which you are wrong in your comments on this article.

    The European Parliament is far from being “a toothless talking shop”; if anything it is more powerful than the Westminster Parliament in holding its executive to account. It can force amendments to laws; it can reject laws; it can reject or sack the Commission. The strict separation of powers means there is no payroll vote. MEPs sit and vote by party group not as national delegations; however, the relatively weak party discipline (partly because of the lack of payroll vote) means that by Westminster standards most MEPs are party rebels.

  • Alex Macfie 29th May '23 - 2:20pm

    Whether anyone is “in favour of most EU policy” is beside the point; one can be in favour of EU membership without supporting its present policy direction, in the same way as opposition to Sunak’s Tory government does not mean opposition to the UK as a country or concept. Voters in the EU can have their say in European Parliamentary elections. The problem in the UK was that the actual role of MEPs in voting on laws and policies for the EU as a whole was never discusssed, even in European Parliamentary election campaigns. Instead we suffered things like the Clegg/Farage debates when MEPs have no say on a particular nation’s membership of the EU. The complicity of the Lib Dems in the conspiracy of silence on the actual role of the European Parliament is regrettable and is one reason we are where we are today. Clegg wasn’t even on the ballot paper, he shouldn’t have fronted our 2014 Euro election campaign. It should instead have been led by our MEPs, focusing on how they had influenced EU law unencumbered by collective responsibliity from the Coalition at Westminster.

  • @ Peter Martin When you say, “While it is apparent that there is a small percentage of genuine UK based pro-EUers, who are actually in favour of most EU policy, there really isn’t any difference in principle between most erstwhile ‘Remainers’ and Leavers”, I’m afraid you perpetuate the oft repeated blinkered Anglo-centric view of politics so often heard emanating from south of the Border.

    I do wish politicians (from all parties south of the Border), when they talk about, “a small percentage of genuine UK based pro-EUers, who are actually in favour of most EU policy”, …….. would take note of the fact that,

    “More than two-thirds of Scots would vote to rejoin the EU, according to a poll by Panelbase survey for the Times……. found that if the Brexit referendum was held again tomorrow, 72 per cent of voters in Scotland would support Remain, up from 62% in 2016.”. The Times, 22 Aug 2022

  • Chris Moore 29th May '23 - 7:34pm

    Alex, really there wasn’t a “conspiracy of silence”. It was just exceptionally difficult to get the British media interested in the doings of the European Parliament.

    As a third party always struggling for attention, we are the least to blame.

    Nick Clegg was a very poor debater. He apparently prepared for the debate with Farage. Much too over-confident of his ability to wing it.

  • Chris Moore 29th May '23 - 7:34pm

    Correction: He apparently barely prepared for the debate etc

  • Peter Martin 29th May '23 - 7:41pm

    @ Alex Macafie,

    Yes you’re right it was 1983. Thanks for that correction. However, I don’t believe a mistake in the actual year negates the point being made.

    If the EU Parliament had been more than a “talking shop” they would have taken primary responsibility for speaking for the EU in the Greek debt crisis of 2015. The EU Parliament could legitimately claim some democratic legitimacy for assuming the role. Instead the German government, which has no democratic mandate to speak for anyone outside its own national borders, somehow took it upon itself to do that with no dissent at all from the Parliament, the European Commission or the ECJ.

    The German government should have been kept right out of it with any dispute being resolved through the EU’s legal system. Can you imagine the furore if the Westminster government arbitrarily froze the bank accounts of everyone living in Scotland in the event of a serious dispute with the Holyrood government?

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by a “conspiracy of silence”. MEPs, and not just the ones from the UK, should have been quite capable of explaining their own role. They failed miserably to do that. Maybe they weren’t sure what it was? I doubt that the average person would manage to name two or more MEPs. We all know the one they probably would be able to name!

  • Peter Martin 30th May '23 - 6:51am

    @ Martin,

    Yes, of course, this is the theory. However, on daily basis, our elected members of the legislature, our MPs, have plenty to say for themselves all kinds of issues which are, strictly speaking, the responsibilities of the judiciary and/or the executive.

    Rightly, this is also what we expect of them. So why weren’t MEPs, and not just UK ones, making the point that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the actions of the Greek Government in 2015, the issue was not a matter with which the German Federal Government should be directly involved?

  • Chris (Moore),

    If I remember rightly Tim Farron said at some dinner or similar that Nick did prepare for his debate with Farage, and Tim was the person who took the role of Farage in the practice debates. The punch line being that after one of the mock debates Nick Clegg asked Tim where did he get some of the stats he threw into the debates regarding waiting lists etc., the answer came “I made them up. That’s what Farage will do.”

    Whether you consider that Nick’s failure in the real debates, mean that the mock debates with Tim clearly don’t qualify for the description preparation is another matter.

  • David, thank you for reminding me of that.

    Probably not serious enough preparation or maybe, Nick was just an irredeemably poor debater.

  • Peter, I feel your dislike of the EU is leading you away from the path of judiciousness.

    The German government played a starring role (chief villain, if you must) in the negotiations with Greece because they were the main funder behind the rescue measures.

    I’m surprised you believe there is something untoward about that. The existence of EU institutions has never precluded the action of national governments. Some extremely poorly informed Brexiteers did harbour this dystopic illusion. But you, surely not? I hadn’t noticed the UK or French governments taking a Trappist vow on European matters, for example.

    By the way, in your above comments; you have not mentioned the Council of Ministers, arguably the most important EU institution. As you’ll remember, it’s a forum for ministers from all the EU members to co-ordinate the present and future of the EU, and adopt and make policy.

    The idea of the EU as a supra-national state is manifestly inaccurate.

    BTW previously, you were claiming the EU was against free trade, based on the mercantilist stance of the German government. Again, this is a remark about the attitudes of German politicians and economists. The EU meanwhile has promoted free trade around the world. Has it been faultless in promoting free trade? No, of course not. But it’s done a sight better than other principal actors such as the US and China.

  • Peter Martin 30th May '23 - 3:09pm

    @ Chris Moore,

    The German Government wasn’t the main funder. These were a collection of German banks which lent out money to private sector borrowers in the peripheral regions of the EU prior to the 2008 GFC. When the loans went sour the German government stepped in to demand that the National governments of those borrowers accept responsibility. There is no legal reason, as far as I can see, why they should be required to do this. If, for example, a UK bank lends money to French borrower, and subsequently the loan is defaulted on, they will be entitled to do what they can to recover their money through the French courts but nothing more.

    In any case, even if the loans had been issued directly by the German government it still shouldn’t entitle them to directly apply economic sanctions via the ECB. As a Lib Dem, you presumably accept that disputes should be settled according to the rule of law. What’s the point of the ECJ if powerful countries like Germany are allowed to pursue their own ‘justice’?

    Is the EU in favour of ‘Free Trade’? We’re entitled to ask why they are so keen on the erection of Tariff walls, designed to keep out imports. We all might have criticisms of the USA but their trade philosophy isn’t too much different from our own. They regularly, and sensibly, run a deficit in their trade. The EU needs Germany to take the same view.

  • Chris Moore 30th May '23 - 3:25pm

    I’m talking about the European bail out of Greek sovereign debt. No other event.

    Whatever the German government has done outside that is the responsibility of the German government, nothing to do with the EU.

    Yes, I am aware of the Brexiteer trope of the EU’s high tariff walls; however, as you must be aware, the EU has scores of free trade agreements with countries around the world. So the trope is inaccurate.

    You’ll also remember that Britain’s vaunted new free trading policy has largely been made up of trying to roll over the existing free trade agreements we already enjoyed through our membership of the Customs’ Union. It made perfect sense to run our trade policy through such a union.

  • Alex Macfie 30th May '23 - 5:31pm

    @Peter Martin: “We all know the [MEP] they probably would be able to name!” Yes, and that’s because he was virtually the only MEP who was ever invited onto panel shows such as Question Time. Chris Moore makes an important point that it was “exceptionally difficult to get the British media interested in the doings of the European Parliament” (whetyher you call this a conspiracy of silence is maybe a matter of semantics; Certainly Lib Dem MEPs felt as if they were shouting in the wind when trying to talk to the media about their role and achievements. The broadcast media seemed to think that by inviting Nigel Farage on they it was enoujgh to tick both boxes of “MEP representation” and “UKIP representation”, refusing to acknowledge that MEPs represented a separate body politic from Westminster MPs and therefore warranted diversity of representation in themselves.
    I do consider that the disastrous 2014 Clegg~Farage debates as being complicit in promoting the trope that “MEPs don’t matter”. It was a serious mistake to give Farage even more publicity, as well as to associate our European election campaign with our deeply unpopular Westminster leader. There were attempts by MEPs early on in the Coalition to characterise the European Parliament as a “Coalition-free Zone”, but this probably did not fit in with the narrative of our Westminster leadership that the whole party (not just MPs at Westminster) had to own all Coalition government policy.

  • Peter Martin 30th May '23 - 8:48pm

    @ Chris Moore,

    It’s somewhat naive to think that the German response to the EU’s debt crisis has nothing to do with the EU.

    The German’s take the view that “he who pays the piper..” etc

    They simply don’t want to acknowledge the fiscal transfers that have to occur in any currency union. We seen happen that the peripheral and less prosperous EU economies have accumulated debts which they will never be able to repay. Germany and the Netherlands conversely have accumulated assets which they will never be able to realise.

    It’s not as if they weren’t warned about this. All they needed to do was see how a common currency works in the USA. This is hardly a bastion of egalitarianism, nevertheless, and as this article explains, when States like Mississippi and Missouri need $$ the US Federal government gives it to them. They don’t bother to call it a loan because they know they’ll get their money back in any case.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/05/the-difference-between-the-us-and-europe-in-1-graph/256857/

  • Chris Moore 31st May '23 - 7:52am

    I’ve made two points, Peter.

    1. National governments have always and will always comment on matters that concern them. The existence of EU institutions doesn’t change that.

    2. Those national governments are responsible for what they say; not the EU.

    Nothing “naive” about those statements. They are very basic however. Still need to be said apparently.

    I haven’t entered into any discussion about the Germans’ understanding of how a common currency works. You are arguing with yourself there.

  • Peter Martin 31st May '23 - 9:02am

    Chris Moore,

    The lack of awareness, and not just by the ordoliberals in Germany, of just what the EU was letting itself in for when they decided to implement a common currency is the root cause of most of the EU’s problems and ultimately led to Brexit. In other words: No euro would have meant no Brexit.

    As any half competent economist would have predicted, the wealthier parts of the EU ended up with too many euros and the poorer parts too few. To compound the problem the EU tried to fix the problem by making the poorer parts even poorer with a prescription of severe economic austerity.

    Again, as also could have been easily predicted, those in the areas badly affected by economic austerity used their right to move freely. This, and the wider problems that a misguided austerity created, caused social tensions, with the rise of the far right in many parts of the EU and the rise of UKIP and the Brexit Party in the UK. So although we, sensibly enough, declined to use the euro we weren’t shielded from its negative economic effects.

  • Perhaps we could now end the discussion of whether the EU is a good thing. The point of the piece was not to rehearse those arguments. I take the view that it is; others don’t and I respect their view. However, the point was not to argue about whether we want to join. The point was that LibDem policy *is* join, so I wanted to make a point about how to do that – in other words to embrace it (especially as Starmer’s Labour clearly doesn’t).

  • Peter Martin 31st May '23 - 8:32pm

    @ Rob Parsons,

    The Lib Dem website uses the word “join” in relation to the Single Market – but only “once the trading relationship between the UK and the EU is deepened, and the ties of trust and friendship are renewed.”

    The only significant argument for remaining in the EU was to have a beneficial trading relationship. That’s what we wanted but nothing else. So why, once we get it, will there be any need to go further?

    Curiously, we then read “we believe Britain’s best future is at the heart of Europe – and our long-term ambition is to see the UK in that place once more.”

    But were we ever really in that place? If we were, why didn’t we sign up to the EU’s project to the same extent as Germany and France?

  • Peter Martin 31st May ’23 – 9:02am:
    In other words: No euro would have meant no Brexit.

    Although the effects of the dysfunctional euro undoubtedly played a roll, as you describe, opinion polls showed strong support for leaving the EEC/EC/EU long before the currency’s introduction…

    ‘Polling history: 40 years of British views on ‘in or out’ of Europe’ [June 2016]:
    https://theconversation.com/polling-history-40-years-of-british-views-on-in-or-out-of-europe-61250

    As James Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson and his government slid toward eventual defeat in the “Winter of Discontent”, the Common Market became steadily less popular. By March 1979 the voters were clearly regretting their 1975 decision, with 60% saying they would vote to leave in a referendum and only 32% to stay. A year later, with Margaret Thatcher now prime minister, the gap was even wider: 65% to 26%.

    ‘European Union membership – trends’:
    https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/european-union-membership-trends

    Q If there were a referendum now on whether Britain should stay in or get out of the European Union, how would you vote?

  • Andrew Tampion 1st Jun '23 - 7:19am

    For me the elephant in the room is that so many of the pro EU side (please note yhat the EU and Europe are different things for many people) are unable or unwilling to accept their share of responsibility for the Brexit vote. It was obvious to anyone not viewing the debate through EU coloured spectacles that there was considerable dissatisfaction with the EU and dissent from the EU’s stated goal of ever closer union within the electorate. Partly for the reasons that Peter Martin and others state. But also because UK voters were not consulted properly or effectively on the matter. I suspect that if Gordon Brown had held a vote on the Lisbon Treaty then Brexit could have been avoided, although perhaps the Lisbon Treaty would have been rejected. Going further back if John Major had held a vote on the Maastricht Treaty that might have done much to prevent the rise of UKIP and Farage, although again the Treaty might have been rejected. But instead pro EU politicians just ploughed on with “The Project” oblivious to voters legitimate concerns.
    I believe that it is the recognition of this failure that is at the heart of the Labour Party’s current EU policy which many on this site see as half hearted.
    Until the pro EU side accept their share of responsibility and set out how that is to be addressed I think that they are wasting their time and effort.

  • Leekliberal 1st Jun '23 - 2:25pm

    Enough of all this re-writing of of history by the anti-EU brigade! Sadly, it appears, they can be confident that the Lib Dems, under our existing leadership, will not make the case for a closer relationship with the EU. As an original SDP member and local activist, all I can do is to walk away from my party as so many others have done on this issue.

  • Martin Gray 2nd Jun '23 - 4:20am

    Some people in this party want a Federal Europe with open borders – both of which would be unacceptable to the voting public…And they still wonder why.

  • Rob Parsons 2nd Jun '23 - 4:35pm

    @Peter 31st May 8.32 pm. As I said in the post you are replying to, I am no longer going to engage with arguments about whether joining is a good thing or not. The original post was about how best to implement Liberal Democrat policy, and that is what I am still interested in.

  • Positive comments from Michael Barnier today on reengagement with the EU Brexit: Michel Barnier says Britain can REJOIN the European Union

  • If we see Brexit as an experiment, albeit a poorly designed one we might be better able to see a way out. Perhaps that’s how the British public viewed it even if it did not articulate it as such. The question now is when to abandon the experiment and reapply for membership, preferably after achieving PR.

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