Opinion: Fighting the Euro-elections on European Issues

Logically, the European elections – due to take place on 4 June next year – should be about European issues. But in Britain, at least, they never have been. Shamefully, even the Liberal Democrats, as the only consistently pro-European party in this country, has accepted the received wisdom that Europe is the love that dare not speak its name.

The nadir came in 1999 when (in London, at least) Euro-candidates were not allowed to have any input into the literature – indeed, we did not see it until it was printed. When I received it, I felt physically sick, as it was all about crime, education and health. All ‘key issues’, we were told. But not ones where Europe has much relevant responsiblity.

The electorate knew that. Voters are not stupid. And many of the 30 per cent of the British population who are actively pro-European did not vote for us, because they saw that we did not have the courage of our convictions. That situation must never happen again.

I was not alone among Euro-candidates in drawing encouragement from the fact that both of the men who put themselves forward for party leader last year were former members of the European Parliament, with impeccable European credentials. Moreover, since assuming the position, Nick Clegg has declared that not only will the party take the 2009 European elections seriously, but we will make our belief in the European Union’s potential clear.

Of course, Charles Kennedy said that when he became leader. But it didn’t happen, as he was comprehensively sat on by his advisors. He has subsequently told me on several occasions that this is the thing he most regrets about his period as leader. Nick Clegg has indicated that he has no intention of being sat on. And Ed Davey, as Chair of Campaigns, has stated publicly (including at the Bournemouth Conference) that the 2009 Euro-elections are going to be different. Fingers crossed.

So if at long last the Liberal Democrats are going to fight next year’s Euros on European issues, what should they be focussing on? Let me start perversely by nominating two things we should probably avoid. The first is institutional reform. Apologies to my dear friend Andrew Duff MEP (who is perhaps the world’s greatest expert on the European Constitution), but this is a total turn-off for voters.

As a party, we regret that the Lisbon Treaty hit the buffers in the Irish referendum and it would certainly be a relief if Ireland somehow manages to get round this. But let’s just curb our nerdish enthusiasm for institutional reform (of which I am as guilty as most) and be pragmatic.

Similarly, I am sure that the party is right in saying that entry into the euro is a matter that has been kicked into the long grass and is probably best left there for the time being. I agree with Graham Bishop – one of the brightest financial brains in our party – that the current situation makes possible entry into the eurozone more likely. But this is a difficult, if not impossible, argument to put across on the doorstep to a sceptical electorate.

So what should we talk about over the next nine months? First and foremost, the environment. EU cooperation on matters such as climate change and combating pollution is so obviously desirable that even Euro-sceptics get the point. Moreover, as a party the Liberal Democrats have an excellent environmental record and we should bang our drum loudly on this.

We should not be afraid of bashing the Greens in the process. The Greens tend to do rather well in European elections, the most spectacular example being in 1989, when they pushed us into fourth place. It is clear that the electorate likes to use a list election such as the Euros to make an environmental stand. But let us persuade them to make that stand for us, not the Greens.

Sometimes we are too nice for our good. We have to point out that some Green policies would be hugely damaging for the economy of Britain and the EU as a whole. Moreover, the British Greens – unlike most of their continental counterparts – are actually anti-European, which is grossly irresponsible given the environmental challenges our continent and planet face.

Secondly, the Euro-elections are almost certainly going to be fought against a backdrop of economic retrenchment, rising unemployment and a general sense of malaise. UKIP and probably the Conservatives will capitalise on this to champion their nationalistic, even xenophobic credentials. We must counter this by making the point strongly that European countries have to swim together to survive difficult times, or else we will sink separately.

Finally (as space and political expediency limit me to three main points) we should stand up for a more coherent European common foreign and security policy. Europe is punching below its weight in the world because it often does not get its act together on foreign and security matters. The world is changing rapidly and new powers like China, India and Brazil are asserting themselves. Europe must do so as well, or else we will be sidelined.

* Journalist, broadcaster and Lib Dem Euro candidate for London, Jonathan Fryer blogs here.

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  • Grammar Police 22nd Oct '08 - 8:04am

    I agree!

  • I’m glad that Lib Dem voice has a word limit for its articles otherwise Jonathan’s article could have been accused of being ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

    This member of the party is in fact very pleased that Lisbon hit the buffers in the Irish referendum – for too long the EU has been ramming opaque and tortuous documents at the people and wondering why they don’t back them – aided and abetted by so called constitutional experts like Andrew Duff.

    The article fails to mention that for large parts of England a far more important election will take place on the same day – to decide who runs county and unitary councils.

    And using valuable media and campaign time to attack the fifth party (the Greens) is just nonsense – let’s bash the BNP or the English Democrats or the OMRLP while we’re at it?

    I’m glad that Eurobarmies like Kennedy had their madcap plans to defend the indefensible squashed by more sanguine advisors – and I hope they do so again if any of this nonsense reappears as a serious approach to fighting these elections.

  • One line of thinking would go this way.

    Tories could win the Euro Elections but in doing so lose the general by being pushed towards their europhobe barmy army wing and making them unelectable as a government.

    Cameron has been good at not talking about Europe, but if you scratch him he is a Euroloon – see pulling MEPS out of the EPP and into bed with a bunch of nationalists.

    How could this be achieved? By the Lib Dems to fight the Euro elections on being pro-europe, pro-reform and smoking out the anti’s with talk of an in-out referendum.

    Just a thought…………..

  • Painfully Liberal 22nd Oct '08 - 9:52am

    I mostly agree with this, but I fear that our saying we shouldnt run on institutional reform may be slightly naive. UKIP for one will whine incessantly about the Lisbon treaty and at the very least we’ll have to be ready to address their tantrums and misrepresentations to some extent. That said, part of our response to that should probably be to point out what a trivially unimportant issue this is to most people in this country and try to move the debate back to issues that actually matter.

  • The Green Party is certainly my second choice, & may even elevate itself to my first. If the Euro & the General Elections were held on the same day I’d be tempted to vote LD in the general & Grene in the Euro. It would send out the right message.

    However, if they were on different days, I’d be more likely to vote for you in both.

    What I don’t like about the Greens is that many of their members seem more interested in radical leftism than environmentalism, & have only joined the party having been comprehensively cast out of Labour & witnessed the demise of Respect etc. However, the more people vote Green, the more this tendency will be diluted by liberals.

    It is very much still be decided, though I am generally quite happy with what Clegg has achieved.

  • Peter Bancroft 22nd Oct '08 - 10:38am

    The fact that 30% of our voters have them as the 2nd place party means that we have to bash them, not that we should roll over and say that they’re just as good as a vote for us.

    The Green party (particularly here in England, it must be said) is irresponsible and utopian.

    Their solutions are much more authoritarian than they are Green, and our policies would concretely help the environment more as well as leaving us all with more freedom.

    Vote Lib Dem rather than Green because we do and can make a difference and have the ideas to do so; vote Lib Dem rather than UKIP in Europe for the same reason.

  • Hywel Morgan 22nd Oct '08 - 11:52am

    “it was all about crime, education and health. All ‘key issues’, we were told. But not ones where Europe has much relevant responsiblity.”

    Yet the EU is always trying to legislate into at least some of those areas. Eg cigarette warnings, “health tourism”, using a health and safety justification to get the UK into the Social Chapter back in the 90s.

    It’s not your fundamental point but if a Lib Dem MEP were to strongly stand up and oppose the EU extend its competencies by stealth then that would be a good and liberal thing.

    To pick up on Neil’s point – we don’t have the same angst about fighting County council elections on “County issues”. I sometimes think a lot of this issue is about the “Europhile tendency” to wish to be the EU’s representatives to the people, not the people’s representatives to the EU.

  • Asquith wrote:

    “The Green Party is certainly my second choice, & may even elevate itself to my first.”

    Lib Dems thinking they could afford the luxury of voting Green caused us untold damage in 1989. Fortunately, David Icke came to the rescue on that particular occasion. But we might not be so lucky next time.

  • The Liberal Democrats do not own my support, & while I lean in their direction there’s nothing to make me beholden to you 😉

    Having said that, the woeful state of Labour & Conservative put me in your camp for the GE unless there is some enormous change.

  • There are a number of points here. The first thing is that fighting the campaign on ‘European issues’ is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. There is a different agenda in the European Parliament than there is in the UK Parliament because they have different competencies.

    Hywel pointed out that occasionally EU legislation does reach into areas of health, crime, etc. Sometimes this is appropriate and sometimes it’s not – our MEP group on the whole is quite good at spotting the turkeys and keeping the EU within its bounds. Sometimes – for instance when legislating on consumer protection, which is an issue which has long and curling tentacles into other policy areas, or on cross-border crime, the European Parliament does legislate, as for example with the European arrest warrant. However, the issues – such as the environment, as Jonathan pointed out – that Europe is the most important mover on, should be principal. Trade, which the EU is the competent player on, is also important and needs more attention. Same too for Europe’s role in the financial crisis – the long-term planning for the financial world after the crisis is over will mainly be done in Brussels, so this should be an issue next year for us. What kind of financial world do we want?

    A few people mentioned that MEPs often give off the impression of being Brussels’ representatives in their constituencies, rather than their constituencies’ representatives in Brussels. This is something we really need to keep in mind as a criticism. The reason MEPs do this, of course, is that many, many untrue things get blithely stated about the European Union as though they were fact – once you start down the road of debunking Euromyths you’re on the ‘EU spokesperson’ slope. At the end of the day, outside Scotland and Wales you don’t generally get Lib Dem MPs defending ‘the UK’, so it shouldn’t by extension be logical for MEPs to be defending ‘the EU’.

  • The Europhiles in the party need to sell their pro-EU narrative to the rest of us inside the party before they try hawking it on the general public. I have some respect for is Chris Davies, because he very publically talks about corruption, bureaucracy and waste in the EU.

    I’m still not sure how a party which claims to believe in devolving power downwards simultaneously supports an opaque, illiberal bureaucracy in Brussels.

  • broncodelsey 23rd Oct '08 - 12:14am

    Euro-elections on European issues,including the referendum promise which the Lib Dems err reneged on?

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