Opinion: How the Liberal Democrats should fight the European elections

European cooperation was initially designed to avoid another world war but because this has been so successful only a few on the extremes believe there is any prospect of war between western European countries today. It’s not a danger that most British people think is realistic. Although Lib Dems will highlight this major achievement in the European Elections in June it is unlikely to shift a significant number of votes in our favour.

The European Union has also made significant improvements to the lives of people which is something we will highlight in our communications. Yet people rarely reward parties for what they have done. It’s usually what they plan to do next or what threat the approach of others presents that determines their vote.

As passionate internationalists and Europeans, the Lib Dems have a great opportunity in the European Elections to differentiate ourselves from the other parties and exploit the moderately outward looking nature of the British people.

Yet for some reason we turn from hard nosed challengers of the establishment in local and general elections to starry eyed dreamers or defenders of authority when contesting European Elections. I want to change that. I want to fight the Euro Elections in June in the strong successful Lib Dem style.

How, I hear you say. By highlighting the dangers of isolation.

There is a real and significant threat to the prosperity and safety of the UK from international isolation as presented by the Conservatives. We must focus on these dangers. Only by highlighting the effect of isolation on people in their everyday lives will we begin to provide some balance to the debate on our future in Europe.

I don’t want to spend the whole of next May rebutting Tory attacks on the European Union. We need to take the campaign to the isolationists. And the isolationists have got a lot to answer for whether it’s international crime, tackling climate change or dealing with the economic crisis. We need to spell out in bold terms that isolation could result in more criminals on the streets, further damage to the planet and more job losses.

We must stress the value of working together with other countries. Few voters would argue that we should turn our backs on working together with other countries. They understand the need to stick together when facing the major threats of environmental degradation, economic instability and criminals who work across borders. They will not understand those who chose to turn their backs on such reasonable measures. That’s the Tories.

Labour’s lethargy on international cooperation is failing to exploit the real potential. In fact the Iraq war blew their credibility with other countries out of the water. It’s also clear that the Prime Minister dislikes working with other European leaders. His failure, and his Ministers, to actively participate in discussions on measures to tackle international crime, climate change and the economic crisis is letting Britain down. On top of highlighting Labour’s mismanagement of the economy we will use the elections as an opportunity to show that Labour is dragging its feet.

I am confident about the European Elections. I am determined to be bold and forthright. What do you think?

Willie Rennie MP is vice-chair of the party’s 2009 European elections campaign.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Two thoughts. Shouldn’t we be using the Euro elections to promote the Liberal Democrats rather than promote Europe? I want to know what my representatives are going to do about issues that affect me. In or out is a referendum issue not an election one.

    And doesn’t slightly more Lib Dem MEPs or slightly more Tory MEPs make very little actual difference to the direction Europe takes? Not just as drops in the ocean in the Parliament but when so much is decided by national governments.

  • Anon: In-or-out will be an issue in a European election. What else do voters have to go on but a commentary on the EU itself? As you say yourself, how does one more Lib Dem MEP change the world?

    We need to be able to give people answers to the two questions:

    1) Why should I vote in a European election

    2) Why should I vote Liberal Democrat in that election

    So Willie is right in that the space Liberal Democrats have to fill is in confronting the isolationists head on.

    We failed to do this in 2004, and offered a tame message which caught no interest and was duly rewarded with securing 4th place nationally, behind UKIP.

    The danger remains with the isolationist arguments being unchallenged. The difficulty of course is that the isolationists in the campaign will attack EU institutions, who can’t fight back.

    So we can try to set a European agenda on fighting international crime or combating climate change, on co-operation being the only route through which real achievements in these areas can be made.

    But this won’t be heard or read about during a campaign that will inspire no one. So let’s also make sure we pick that fight with the criminals and dead-beats that constitute the UKIP delegation that won in 2004!

  • Willie,

    First and foremost, I am a Lib Dem.

    Secondly, I am an internationalist – but only where it promotes the values of Liberal Democracy.

    Thirdly, I am a European – again only where it promotes the values of Liberal Democracy.

    As for being passionate about things, I save that for just two – liberty and my family.

  • Willie

    It’s good to see the LibDems fighting the Euro corner again – exactly why I continue to support the party strongly.

    However, your penultimate paragraph on Labour and the PM’s “disengagement” is a little worrying. Some of the information you include is frankly incorrect – The PM and his Ministers have engaged frequently and vigorously on all three of the areas you highlight, and this argument will be easily rebutted through the production of minute statements, and other such publications.

    Perhaps the strategy for dealing with Labour should not be so confrontational. The ALDE and PES parties have worked closely together on a number of issues – perhaps UK campaigning could reflect this, with a united LibDem and Labour voice in the face of the illogical, unachievable, and frnakly embarrassing Tory position (not to mention the other fringe parties). Perhaps a united voice is to far, but some form of truce or recognition of common interests could be brokered?

    One of the admirable things about the EP is its foundation in consensus politics. If only the UK system worked on this basis, then we might actually end up with a political environment people could engage with.

  • Liberal Eye 8th Jan '09 - 4:00pm

    The Lib Dems have traditionally made a huge strategic error on Europe in allowing our opponents to frame the debate in terms or “yes or no”, “in or out”.

    This may have made perfect sense back in the 60s and 70s when that was indeed the question but things have moved on. The EU is now an established reality which has its own politics which we are not addressing.

    The question now should be framed as “what sort of Europe do we want?”

    Specifically, there is a huge concern about the EU’s perceived corruption, remoteness, lack of accountability etc. (see for instance comments on Prof Leighton’s LDV piece of yesterday). The powers that be in Brussels know perfectly well that there is a problem – hence the proposed constitution treaty – yet the Lib Dem position has been to back the unsupportable and thoroughly illiberal plan to the hilt, endorsing positions that are diametrically opposite to those we claim in domestic politics.

    Needless to say this saps credibility both domestically and in Europe.

    To gain some sort of traction on Europe we need to offer a better alternative, an alternative constitutional vision that addresses the issues and campaign on that.

    Difficult? Not really – at least not unless you allow UKIP to frame the debate.

  • Mike Falchikov 8th Jan '09 - 6:17pm

    I would actually like to campaign on
    1. Adopting the euro
    2. Adopting the Schengen agreement
    HOwever, I guess these are steps too far for the time being. It is going to be hard to both endorse the good things of theEU as well as criticising the bad – waste, corruption etc. But it has to be
    tried and at least let’s try to make it an election about European issues and be proud of our European credentials.

  • Roger Roberts 8th Jan '09 - 6:50pm

    Always a fervent European I recently visited the Warsaw Parliament -saw the memorial tablets to those, mainly parliamentarians, who died in Hitler’s death camps. Just wondered if there had been an EU or similar in the 1930s would there have been a Holocust ? If there had been a EU in 1938-39 would we have had a second world war ? How can we get this kind of message across ?

  • Roger Roberts 8th Jan '09 - 6:52pm

    Let me repeat what I wrote recently -always a fervent European I recently visited the Warsaw Parliament -saw the memorial tablets to those, mainly parliamentarians, who died in Hitler’s death camps. Just wondered if there had been an EU or similar in the 1930s would there have been a Holocust ? If there had been a EU in 1938-39 would we have had a second world war ? How can we get this kind of message across ?

  • “1. Adopting the euro”

    There always seems a lack of logic in saying “we shouldn’t fight European elections on issues which aren’t relevant” and wanting to go on about the Euro – something the European Parliament has no say over.

    Roger – a varient of Toby Ziegler’s explanation to anti-WTO protestors “Free Trade Stops Wars – and we find a way to fix the rest”

  • Roger Roberts 8th Jan '09 - 10:13pm

    Hywel – most seriously I am convinced that Europe would have avoided the calamities of the 1930s and 1940s with effective European partnership.UK must learn from its past.

  • Roger: I’m looking hard for European partnership now and I don’t see much. I do see a lot of national snouts in troughs paid for largely by the Germans and to a lesser extent us.

    Maybe if the Germans had an economy capable of paying lots of money to France in the 30s and a willingness to do it, there would have been less likelyhood of a war, but it wasn’t there, and playing what might have been futile. After all, as the old saying goes “If my uncle had a **** he’d be my aunty.”

  • Roger Roberts 9th Jan '09 - 7:25pm

    It is a matter of learning the lessons of history.Of course co-operation and understanding is far from easy but but 27 European nations are striving to co-operate. I would not budge from my assertion that the EU makes war and mass slaughter far less likely than in the past.

  • It could equally be argued that nuclear deterrence has made war and mass slaughter less likely. Indeed I would put it about 80% Nuclear deterrence, 18% economic wellbeing (but watch this space), 2% EU.

    In the end, I return to my question “Is the EU particularly liberal or democratic?” and I come out closer to no for the EU as a whole than I do for most individual EU countries. After all the bigger the state, the bigger the scope for illiberal one size fits all policies.

  • As today’s opinion poll in the Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/4214369/Loosen-Britains-ties-with-European-Union-say-two-thirds-of-voters..html)
    makes clear, there are major problems in Britain’s relationship with the EU. Any party that appears to be Europhile under these conditions is going to lose votes.

    The best the Lib Dems can do is to strike a posture of ‘constructive criticism’. This means demanding cutbacks in waste (e.g. the Strasbourg circus, CAP etc.) and making specific demands about increased efficiency, accountability and democracy e.g. “We will go in there with our own auditors to check how our money is being spent”, cut back MEPs’ allowances etc. People in Britain are worried about giving up even more sovereignty when it appears to conflict with our own traditions of justice, law-making and government. The worst thing is if the Lib Dems are seen to be throwing these away or kow-towing to an army of arrogant Euro-maximalists.

  • Willie Rennie 12th Jan '09 - 12:30pm

    Thanks for everyone’s comments. A recurring point made is we need to differentiate ourselves from the other parties and campaign for issues that matter to voters. I am heartened by this view. It’s not a matter of being for or against Europe – it’s about what the Lib Dem MEPs can do for voters. There are lots of cracking issues that we should grab with both hands.

  • Simon Titley 12th Jan '09 - 8:44pm

    Robert C quotes a Daily Telegraph poll that says two-thirds of those polled favour looser ties with the EU. He concludes, “Any party that appears to be Europhile under these conditions is going to lose votes.”

    Wrong. If two-thirds favour weaker ties, that means one-third favour the same or stronger ties. Who will stand up for this one-third?

    The Lib Dems should mobilise this sector of the electorate (which is at least twice as big as the 14.9% the party won in 2004).

    It would be a much more profitable (and honourable) course of action than competing with the Tories, Labour, UKIP and the BNP for the Eurosceptic vote.

    After all, if you’re a Eurosceptic, you may as well vote for the Real McCoy.

  • Simon. You are assuming that pro-Europeans are the ones who are motivated to turn out to vote, which is mostly not the case. It is older, more conservative, Europhobes who do. So, sorry, but your argument does not hold water. You are just plain wrong.
    The Lib Dems are doing no-one any favours by glossing over the glaring deficiencies of the EU. Constructive criticism is the only possible stance.
    They have tried the rose-tinted Eurospectacles approach before, and what did it get them? Fourth place behind UKIP!

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