Is it time to consider what the European Union is for?

Liberal Democrats are an oddly reticent bunch when it comes to the European Union, defined more by our opponents than by our own words. We are, by the very nature of being internationalist, in favour of a European idea. But we appear increasingly unsure as to what that might be, so we tend not to talk about it much these days.

What that means is that when the question of Europe is raised, UKIP loudly distort the truth, joined by the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives, whilst everybody else talks about jobs, education and crime, perhaps mentioning Europe in passing. So, this is going to be a piece telling you all that Europe is great, and that we should shout its praises from the rooftops, right? Wrong.

We have a problem, in that the European Union is expanding its sphere of influence without anyone really noticing. That isn’t to say that our MEPs are letting us down, far from it. But, increasingly, they operate in a vacuum of media disinterest and public apathy, and their voice is too seldom heard. As an example, this august organ includes very little coverage of the European Parliament (until now, that is), and you only tend to hear about it when it has supposedly done something that the right-wing press don’t like.

And under that effective cover of darkness, the European Union has developed a sense of mission creep. Last year, at an ELDR Congress in Palermo, I listened with a degree of incredulity as a delegate from the Committee of the Regions called for a significant increase in EU spending, seemingly oblivious to the pressures on national budgets. Whilst delegates were not swayed from their widely held view that the EU must cut its cloth according to the available material, it was enlightening to realise the scale of the disconnect between those at the heart of the European project and, frankly, the rest of us.

So, I suggest that it is time for liberals, here and across Europe, to seriously debate what the EU is for, and how it can be reconnected to its citizens. Taking for granted the need for transparency and improved accountability, what should its role be, where can it make a difference? And when will we start to argue the case for a more effective Europe, a more liberal Europe?

I still firmly believe that the European Union should be key to our future as a successful, liberal nation in an increasingly interconnected global market. It offers, amongst other things, opportunities for our industries and our young people, a louder voice in international negotiations and a means to address shared problems.

But the more remote it becomes from the lives of its citizens, and the more that it assumes roles that bring it into conflict with national governments, the more it imperils the genuine gains it has achieved.

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


  • Joseph Donnelly 24th Apr '12 - 1:41pm

    A nicely balanced post. I think you make this point but its important to stress it for discussions that are likely to take place below this article; being against some things the European Union does, does not mean you are against the European Union.

    As liberals we are both champions of the European Union but also of over centralised national government and we want to devolve power. We have got to be careful that over the next couple of decades we don’t centralise power so much in the EU that we spend the following decades calling for devolution.

  • I absolutely agree that we need to talk about what the European Union is for and what it is not. I also absolutely agree that the Commission has become disconnected from the citizenry and its component nations: and this is very bad for the European project as a whole. I’ve just come back from a trip to Turkey and while there is still a basic desire to join the EU, there is now a question arising from how Greece has suffered from being part of Europe. If the EU means that you’re shackled to institutions which appear to be unresponsive, what’s the point of membership? My other half was urged by one of our Turkish hosts that Britain should get out of the EU while we still could. Yet it feels like the leadership in Brussels is sailing on, unmoved by such sea changes in opinion. This is very dangerous and needs to be addressed honestly.

  • mike cobley 24th Apr '12 - 1:52pm

    I used to be quite idealistic with regard to the EU, and while I would be perfectly happy to live in a United States of Europe, the prospect of something like that (which would also be rationally social democrat with social justice ingrained in all its institutions) coming about in my lifetime now seems remote. The reasons are various – nationalist tendencies along with the concomitant prejudices and bigotries present a serious obstacle to socio-political and economic unity, as well as the jealously guarded powers of elite groupings. Then there’s the fact that sadly the EU as it stands has been suborned by the financial sectors, leaving banks and investment corporations with unseeming amounts of power to threaten or even direct pan-european economic policy (vis the debt crisis especially WRT Greece etc). Perhaps we are at the point where a certain degree of disengagement should be carried out in order to preserve wider consensus at a lower level of interconnection. A complete break with Europe or deeper integration would have severe destabilising effects, which we could well do without for the time being.

  • I honestly believe that the UKs attitude to EU has been warped less by even the Daily Mail and much more by our civil services practice of gold plating every regulation, however stupid.

    One historic example; milk quotas were agreed in 1983 and implemented in the UK in 1984, even though the UK was nowhere near self sufficient in milk and dairy products.

    Other EU countries gradually adopted quotas., the last being Italy, a good 10 years later and even then only if they were granted a further X billion litres .

    As a result, our efficient and hygienic ally excellent milk producers were driven out if business whilst most of Europe implemented at a speed that suited them and their industries.

    No doubt somebody will say we play by the rules, but if rules are not applied uniformly, they deserve to be ignored

  • Brilliant article.

  • Alex Macfie 24th Apr '12 - 2:54pm

    @tommy5d: You mischaracterise Norway’s relationship with the EU. Norway’s position is that it has to adopt EU laws, but has no say in how they are made. Pretty much the worst of all worlds. Also I think we Liberals are critical of things about the EU we don’t like. But the media takes no notice of us.

  • Sean O'Curneen 24th Apr '12 - 6:04pm

    I was not the delegate from the Committee of the Regions that you refer to, but I was in Palermo as part of that delegation and I watched with equal dismay as so many of the delegates sent by their respective national parties seemed to have little experience of the EU and very little understanding about what is in fact needed if we really want an effective EU. As you might imagine, the Liberal group in the Committee of the Regions discussed very carefully about the position our group would take in Palermo. Would we go with what was easy to sell or would we go with what we believed was right? As difficult as carrying out cuts might be, in Palermo the easy thing to sell was to cut the EU budget, because that is what national governments are having to do and it is difficult to justify increasing the EU budget when citizens are witnessing how front line public services are being cut in their cities and regions. Believe me, if anyone knows how difficult these cuts are, it is precisely the members of the Committee of the Regions, all of whom are local and regional councillors in their home countries, who know exactly how painful the process is. But at the same time, we recognise that if we want an effective EU then we have to end once and for all this business of having national governments ask the EU to do things but refuse to give it the funds to carry out the task. Let us not forget that the EU budget is just barely more than 1% of the whole of the GDP of the European Union. In fact the 27 governments put together spend almost 50 times more than the EU. Not a penny of the EU budget is spent on debt, and 95% of it goes back to the Member States in the form of spending on policies and programmes. The Lisbon Treaty has strengthened the European Parliament’s hand, but it is still the 27 national governments that call the shots. How effective can it be to have 27 national governments having to agree emergency measures e.g. to save the euro? We’re seeing before our very eyes how effective that system is. If we want an effective EU, it must have a) the competences, and b) the funds to carry out its tasks. For some of the most fundamental tasks supposedly in its hands, it has neither. Hence the Liberal group in the Committee of the Regions chose to defend what it believed was right.
    Sean O’Curneen
    Secretary General
    Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
    Committee of the Regions

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 24th Apr '12 - 7:49pm


    Thank you for making time to join our discussion.

    Given that we agree that there is a dislocation between the national delegations and the core of the EU, we need to address the questions of how we remove that, and what compromise can be reached, if any.

    Yes, the European Union does valuable things, but so do national governments. And when national governments are cutting budgets severely, having someone tell them that they should hand over a real terms increase to Europe is perhaps a bit naïve. It is probably simplistic to consider a choice between grants to Azerbaijan for being well-behaved (as the Association Agreement effectively does), whilst making cuts in legal aid for battered spouses. But, in reality, those are merely the extreme ends of the range of choices to be made, and the ones that critics will home in on.

    And the public have to be brought along with us, a rather harder challenge still. On the basis of events in France and the Netherlands, that’s going to be a stretch for a while, I fear…

  • Steven Rhodes 24th Apr '12 - 7:55pm

    I have always maintained that the point about being in favour of the EU in principle meant that your voice was taken more seriously when proposing what to do with the EU in practice. Nobody ever gained bargaining power by saying ‘No!No!’ My own view is that the EU was formed to prevent war between nations – and it has worked spectacularly. It went on to build economic prosperity, and even taking into a/c the euro it has done that well. Then it picked up the pieces of the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc; work that could never have been done even in 1970s. Its mission now is to establish good relations with those on our borders who are not members: e.g. Turkey the Caucasus and the Maghreb. If we concentrated on that we might avoid euro navel-gazing. The EU executive is too large, and it doesn’t have enough to do – so it is making work.

  • But the more remote it becomes from the lives of its citizens, and the more that it assumes roles that bring it into conflict with national governments, the more it imperils the genuine gains it has achieved.

    Please can you give me a list of the genuine gains the EU has achieved, then perhaps the general public can support it better? I struggle to see benefits of it except French Sarkozy is a law and order man, individually brave enough to go outside the box on occasion, for the benefit of human rights in the case of the weapon drop for the Lybian rebels INDIVIDUALLY and Merkel supports him for a second term? Other than hens should be in smaller cages, what are the genuine gains made by the EU?

  • I don’t think we should be praising the European Arrest Warrant system when it is so open to abuse. The trouble with making it easier to extradite criminals is that people end up being extradited over trivial matters for which extradition is wholly inappropriate. When people can be extradited to serve sentences resulting from obviously unfair trials, or when the trial is not ready, or over minor allegations dating years back, or over something that would not even be considered a crime here, or with practically no evidence against them, and when there is no simple way of withdrawing an arrest warrant, even when a court refuses extradition, the system is fundamentally broken. I think that at the BARE MINIMUM there should be a compulsory proportionality test (no sending people back to Poland for alleged possession of a few grams of cannabis 7 years ago), and the refusal of an extradition request should lead to its automatic invalidation across the EU. I know the EAW has helped bring real criminals to justice, and at least the UK is reasonably sensible about when it uses the system, but I can’t help feeling that the system is so flawed that it needs to be torn up and redrawn from scratch.

  • Richard Dean 24th Apr '12 - 10:30pm

    Europe exists …

    1. to reduce the possibility of a European war (historically: to solve the problem of Franco-German rivalry
    2. to protect and represent Europeans in a future of super-nations – China, India – and powerful continental groups – Africa, South America. Small countries will just get blown about in the wind once these economies (and their concomitant approaches to human rights, health and safety, and environment issues, etc) get going

  • Can I recommend “The End of the West” by David Marquand? Asks many of the questions above from a europhile perspective including where are the borders of Europe?

  • Sean O'Curneen 25th Apr '12 - 9:56am

    I don’t think it is a question of naïvety, rather more a question of duty. As we saw in Palermo, if those who work at the European level don’t make the case for the EU, then nobody will. I fully agree with you that national governments are also useful, which is an understatement, but the problem is that they tend to give with one hand and take with the other, and that is what is undermining the EU and its ability to act effectively. The EU must not of course exceed its competences, and the Committee of the Regions plays a key role in defending subsidiarity (an ugly word for a very democratic and liberal principal) which is about decisions taken at the appropriate level. But coming to the question you pose at the start of this discussion, Flo Clucas and Lort Tope, both long serving members of the Committee of the Regions and of their respective councils (Liverpool and Sutton), wrote a letter back in October to all Lib Dem MPs and Peers addressing this very question. Sorry for the long comment, but I think it is worth reproducing the whole letter here as it is relevant:
    Dear colleague,

    Re: Britain and the European Union

    Given that the UK’s membership of the EU has again taken centre stage in British politics, we are writing to share with you our views and explain why we think that membership is more than ever a necessity for the United Kingdom.

    There are new and formidable challenges we face in the 21st century, and it is ironic that our membership of the Union is again called into question when the EU has become much more valuable to Britain and will be increasingly so as the century progresses.

    A number of developments make this inevitable:

    1. It is estimated that by 2025, in just 14 years time, one billion people on this planet will not have access to water. Mass migration and the challenges that come with it will therefore continue.
    2. Our demand for energy and natural resources is on the rise, and the geostrategic jostling to secure access to both is a potential source of global instability.
    3. The opening up of shipping routes in the Arctic and the scramble to exploit them for global trade and for the Arctic’s natural resources will present new challenges for Britain in terms of security and the environment.
    4. Global finances and their impact on national economies require supranational responses.
    5. Mitigating and adapting to climate change cannot be achieved by any nation state on its own.

    All of these are real challenges, but also opportunities that can only be addressed and seized upon together with our European neighbours. It is time to engage more with the EU, not less. One of the tragedies of the corrosive euroscepticism that exists in the UK is that the number of British citizens working within the EU institutions is proportionately far below that of Germans, French, Italians, and Spaniards, the other four of the five largest countries. Thus, the British way of thinking is absent in many quarters and our ability to influence how the EU functions is seriously weakened.

    We believe therefore that there are two concrete ways that you can defend Britain’s interests:
    1. By arguing that the EU is more relevant than ever to the UK.
    2. By encouraging people you may know to apply for positions in the EU institutions.

    We trust that you will find this letter useful and remain at your disposal for any further information.

    Kind regards,

  • Europe stands for freedom. It is that simple.

    More specifically this means the ‘four freedoms’ and the conventions on Human Rights.

    Born out of the rubble of war, common agreement was reached on the mutual self-interest of developing peace and prosperity for all.

    Integration is required because prosperity depends on peace, and all the hard-won evidence shows that peace cannot be taken for granted.

    If you don’t support integration, then you are supporting disintegration and a return to the same endpoints as has scarred history since time immemorial.

    The current institutional framework means the EU lacks legitimacy. This is why the Parliament has become the largest talking shop going.

    Reform of the EU is urgently required – particularly to the Commission, by ending the rotating Presidency and replacing it with a qualified voting system, for instance through endosement by the Parliament to reconnect the link to ordinary people through our representative MEP (and thereby giving them a meaningful practical job to do).

    Oh, hey! That’s almost exactly like the British model of democracy – far better than the Blairite dream of French-style direct elections for an all-powerful leader creating a dangerous combination of Head of State and Head of Government.

    So my question would be: what model of democracy should Europe follow?

    Until we can answer this question, it won’t.

  • Sean O'Curneen 25th Apr '12 - 2:47pm

    A practical and concrete example that illustrates some of the points I have made is this (published last Friday, but I only saw it today):
    “Member states have watered down the draft Energy Efficiency Directive so much that only 38% of the initial savings proposed by the European Commission can now be achieved, according to a “non-paper” by the EU Executive seen by EurActiv.”
    I recommend reading the whole article

  • Jedi,
    it’s nice that you say Europe is about freedom – so we agree – but you seem to fail to recognise that in saying so you are expressing a point of shared, common political identity.

    The substance of the debate is that ‘Europe’ is not and must not be an inpenetrable monolith, but a process of discovering what that actually means in practise. By participating in the process we guarantee our democracy, and conversely, where we do not we put it at risk.

  • Sean O'Curneen 8th May '12 - 9:18am

    Regardless of the differing points of view expressed above, it is worth knowing what the leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament thinks. Guy Verhofstadt was Belgian Prime Minister for nearly 10 years. He speaks his mind on lots of topics in the following interview :

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