Lib Dem policy on Europe in the balance

The text has been published of the motion to be debated at our virtual conference this week – have you registered yet?

I wrote on the importance of re-establishing popular consent for a stronger relationship with Europe, so I was pleased to see this addressed in the motion, which restates our values, expresses our determination to oppose the damage the government is doing to this country, and goes on to conclude

In the longer term, conference resolves to keep all options open for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, including membership at an appropriate future date to be determined by political circumstances, subject to public assent, market and trade conditions and acceptable negotiated terms.

This is still open to amendment – amendments can be submitted until 5pm tomorrow (23rd September) here and I am aware that some of us would like to see an immediate rejoin policy in place of this.

This article is a plea to you, if you are going to submit that amendment, to look at the text above and to properly address some of the issues it covers:

  • political circumstances: there must be an appetite for rejoining, on both sides of the channel, and a time of few other urgent distractions
  • subject to public assent: referendums (for example) should be held only when there is a very good prospect of winning, and not willy nilly.
  • acceptable negotiated terms: we don’t have the right to rejoin on the same terms as we had before. We can ask for them, just as we can ask for reforms on the other side, but it all depends on the amount of appetite.

The revoke policy, for all its faults was at least very clear. If revoke had happened we wouldn’t have left the EU and we would have remained members on the existing terms: the rebate, all the opt outs, a veto on any treaty changes, accessions, etc.

A rejoin policy is less clear. The same terms may or may not be available; terms will have to be negotiated. The sadness and resignation in Europe at the UK’s departure may become joy at the return of the prodigal son, or weary irritation at the tiresome flip flopper, or a European camp divided between these two responses.

To commit as a country to rejoining without agreement on the details would be a grand folly of process on a par with how Brexit was done, and would be rejected at the ballot box for just that reason. I wrote on the folly of this process with regard to Brexit in October.

So it is necessary to negotiate first and only put something to the people if the terms are good enough. For this to work, the leaders of EU member states would have to believe that the UK is in earnest (but not so keen that they needn’t offer good terms).

It seems to me that the rejoin amendment that dealt with all these issues would be one that read:

In the longer term, conference resolves to keep all options open for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, with a preference for membership at an appropriate future date to be determined by political circumstances, subject to public assent, market and trade conditions and acceptable negotiated terms.

I’m not proposing this, but you are welcome to steal.

PS Get your speakers cards in by 4pm the day before the debate.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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28 Comments

  • I don’t think it can happen for at least 30 years, but you might get away with a step by step process so that a bit more alignment each decade until we are pretty much on the same page down the line.

    Possibly a good starting point would be to go for freedom of movement but with no access to benefits, in-work benefits, social housing etc, which should have been done forty years ago.

  • When only 43% voted for what we have ended up with. One of the drawbacks with rejoining is that it is the powerful with vested interests to stay out that are in control. How do we solve that?

  • “To commit as a country to rejoining without agreement on the details would be a grand folly of process on a par with how Brexit was done, and would be rejected at the ballot box for just that reason”.

    On the contrary it was the fact that Brexit was undefined and could mean all things to all people, that contributed to its electoral success. An endorsement of rejoin as a general ideal to work towards should surely appeal to a wide variety of voters, without needing to spell out the details. Any attempt to obfuscate this and introduce caveats and ambiguities will not be helpful, as Jeremy Corbyn found out.

  • Laurence Cox 22nd Sep '20 - 2:17pm

    Here’s one such amendment already:

    Amendment text: Delete final paragraph (lines 47 to 50) and insert the following text:

    “4. reflecting the beliefs at point (ii) above, [Conference calls for*] the Party’s next general election manifesto to include a pledge that the UK will seek to open re-entry talks and, subject to ratification of known terms at the end of those talks, to rejoin the European Union preferably within ten years.”

    * these words added for clarification only

    Not surprisingly, the member who posted it on the Lib Dem Conferences Facebook page also doesn’t think that such a decision needs to be ratified by a referendum (as in 1975). Sometimes I despair about members of our Party; it seems that some of them have not learned that hubris is not a good quality in a politician. If we are to rejoin the EU we need to convince the wider public that rejoining will be good for the UK (not just that leaving will be bad).

  • Peter Martin 22nd Sep '20 - 2:34pm

    “…….. negotiate first and only put something to the people if the terms are good enough.”

    What’s good enough? Why don’t former remainers have the courage of their convictions about the EU and say they want to be a part in the same way France and Germany are? That’s the only way we can hope to change anything we don’t like about it.

    If we’re in, we should be in 100%. Use the euro, be a part of Schengen, no opt outs, no special deals, no UK exceptionalism. On the other hand if we’re out……….

  • Any campaign to rejoin would meet ferocious opposition from the Brexit press. But maybe we should be as unscrupulous as the Brexiters, adopting the populist weapon and throwing all conventions aside to beat them at their own game. For example, we could propose rejoining the EU to take it over and teach Johnny Foreigner how things should be done. Its headquarters would be moved from Brussels to London. Britannia, as well as ruling the waves, would rule Europe. Brexiters would vote for that and after the vote was won we would say “Nobody keeps promises these days. Brussels stays as EU capital but you are now EU citizens, get over it”.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Sep '20 - 3:01pm

    “… Its headquarters would be moved from Brussels to London…..”

    Nah. We don’t want London. Too cosmopolitan.

    How about Stoke-on- Trent ?

  • I am proud to belong to a party that has internationalism in its guts and to pretend that being a pro-EU party must somehow be put on ice does not seem like a recipe for credibility. However our enthusiasm for increased co-operation and interdependence within Europe is but a part, albeit a very, very important part of a wider internationalism and our understanding of what it means to be human. Similarly I assume that those who believe in referendums (and I am not one of them) see a referendum as a democratic procedure within a wider understanding of democracy. Let’s not lose the big pictures when the political world could look very different this time next year or the following few years. The right wing scaremongering national print media will survive a bit longer yet but the forces of darkness are always with us. Being hammered by headlines on the Tuesday before elections is something we have always had to live with and is not a reason for downplaying where we are coming from.

  • I believe that we should maintain our pro-European identity and campaign for a rejoin referendum after the next election.

    It is a distinctive position and selling point and differentiates us from Labour and the Conservatives.

    The critical thing is to make sure people are aware of our policies on other issues they care about such as Health, Education, Crime etc. We did not do this at the election and voters did not know what we stood for beyond Brexit. That is where we went wrong.

    In addition, to win a rejoin referendum we need to be opposed to the Euro and Schengen.

  • Trying to look at this objectively, the article above seems perfectly reasonable. There are lots of conditions to be satisfied, but that seems reasonable too. The unstated message is that the probability of re-joining is extremely low.

    The question of Brexit is effectively being kicked into the long grass and I know that many here will not be happy about that. To do otherwise would be to make a new case for joining under new terms. I have no idea what that would look like but it would be quite a challenge.

  • Paul Barker 22nd Sep '20 - 6:18pm

    I want to challenge what I feel are the Illiberal assumptions behind both The Resolution as it stands & this article.
    The talk of Negotiations seems to imply that we in The UK have different interests from our fellow Europeans, we dont. We all want to avoid armed conflict if possible, we all need to slow Global warming & reverse the declines in Biodiversity. The whole idea of “National Interests” is Illiberal nonsense.
    The state of Public Opinion in The UK has hardly changed over the last 4 Years, we are split down the middle on Europe with few people changing sides – why have we as a Party suddenly lost our nerve ?

  • This motion is beyond stupid as it wins back no Brexit supporters whilst alienating people like me who have voted Lib Dem for 25 years. I have zero interest in the Lib Dems if they dont have a strongly pro EU identity. Brexit is a historic mistake. SNP will capitalise on the fallout while the Lib Dems with this messaging will lose more activists and voters.

  • I’m a Brexiteer and a Conservative voter but I have voted Lib Dem when I was younger.

    I feel that the Lib Dems should remain a Pro EU/Rejoin party as the Rejoiners need a voice. However I do feel that your policy should include a Referendum between Stay out/Rejoin. You shouldn’t rejoin without a referendum.

    BTW I am in my 30 and I don’t think we will rejoin in my lifetime

  • Peter Martin 23rd Sep '20 - 8:26am

    @ Marco,

    “…….to win a rejoin referendum we need to be opposed to the Euro and Schengen”

    This isn’t realistic. Why would the EU want to allow us to use the pound and have separate travel controls?

    It would be like Ireland wanting to rejoin the UK but still use a different currency and have its own passport control system on the borders.

    True, Ireland isn’t a part of Schengen, and some EU countries don’t use the euro but ever closer union will have to mean those exemptions won’t be permanent. Sooner or later they’ll be given the choice of full EU membership or some associated status. The latter is probably all that will be on offer if we do change our minds.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Sep '20 - 8:44am

    @ Paul Barker,

    ‘The whole idea of “National Interests” is Illiberal nonsense’

    I don’t know about that. The Liberal Party has a good patriotic record in the 19th and 20th centuries. Liberals have always argued that there’s no fundamental conflict between National interests and a wider international responsibility. It’s not a zero sum game and all that.

    The campaign to Remain in the EU was largely based around the argument that it was in our National Interest to do so. Which was fair enough. But the hard headed economic arguments have to be accompanied by some emotional reasons too, and Leave won, hands down, in that area. This led many of to think that many ardent Remainers didn’t have any!

  • As far as the Republic of Ireland is concerned they cannot join Schengen because of the common travel area with the U.K. Joining would involve border controls with the rest of Ireland.
    As far as the national interest is concerned, of course we should support the national interest and hence patriotism. To me the national interest is the interest of the people in the U.K.. To me the national interest is not the interest of multinational corporations who take profits out of the country while paying little tax,

  • Tony Ferguson 23rd Sep '20 - 9:29am

    The phrase “with a preference for membership at an appropriate future date to be determined by political circumstances, subject to public assent, market and trade conditions and acceptable negotiated terms” is too vague and will be presented as us wanting to sign up to the known terms of membership if you apply now – this would include membership of the Euro – an idea that I would never support AND one that will be very unpopular

  • The reason I intend to vote against amendments to the Europe debate is that I believe that we should spend time in the next year in work!no on our long term policy on Europe and on how to build up support for the real EU – rather than the one which so many opposed.
    I have to say that I was impressed by a Conservative MP on the news last evening. Didn’t catch his name as I wasn’t really listening as I tend to avoid the endless talk on covid.
    He said that the government needed a continuous information campaign of the realities of the disease through the winter or they would lose the support of the people.
    This should have been, and should continue to be, the approach of the party on Europe. We need to build up support for the real Europe and expose the myths of the Imaginary Europe.
    When the channel tunnel was being built we were promised direct train services from Liverpool to Brussels and Manchester to Paris. The trains were bought but never ran. All because of our strange idea that controlling immigration is the same as putting people to maximum inconvenience., and putting on an expensive dramatic performance.

  • Matt (Bristol) 23rd Sep '20 - 10:09am

    For what it’s worth, I would like to see the party advocating actively for close cooperation and increased number of shared institutions with the EU, separate from or before any campaign for rejoining.

    you cannot allow a situation where the only two options are rejoining vs whatever the status quo post Boris Johnson turns out to be.

    “In the longer term, conference resolves to always campaign for a closening relationship between the UK and the EU as a whole, maximising collaboration and common institutions; always expressing a strong preference for a pathway to membership at an appropriate future date, after mutually acceptable terms mandated by Parliament have been democratically confirmed by the people as a whole, within a constitutionally valid and binding process.”

  • Peter Martin 23rd Sep '20 - 11:27am

    @ Tom Harney,

    “We need to build up support for the real Europe and expose the myths of the Imaginary Europe.”

    OK but what is the “real Europe”? Or, as I think you might mean, the real EU?

    There’s always been lots of articles on LDV about the UK’s relationship with the EU and on the question of membership, but there’s more to the EU than that. So the real EU does need some discussion. Agreed.

    However, there’s next to nothing about the underlying tensions between the surplus and deficit countries. There may be a desire for “ever closer union” but that comes with a requirement that Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Finland (the so called frugal four) will have to be responsible for the unrepayable debts clocked up by the supposedly not so frugal members. This question has to be resolved, almost certainly in a way the F4 won’t like, for the EU to survive.

    There was next to nothing about the conflict between Greece and Germany in 2015. There’s been no discussion of the yellow vest protests in France. How is this consistent with a support for and interest in the EU?

  • Julian Tisi 23rd Sep '20 - 3:53pm

    Politics is the art of the possible. Our party has a strong record of being idealistic but tempered by pragmatism; the reality is that an immediate rejoin policy at the next GE would be electoral suicide. It will turn off not only those who voted for Brexit but also those who just want to move on. But “keep all options open” (motion line 47) is way too weak and non-committal for me. We need some much stronger indication that we will actually try to move things towards rejoining, which we continue to be in Britain’s long term best interests. Laurence Cox above copies one potential amendment (2:17pm) “… the UK will seek to open re-entry talks and, subject to ratification of known terms at the end of those talks, to rejoin the European Union preferably within ten years.”
    This amendment looks to me to be a batter balance between signalling our clear intent to rejoin whilst being pragmatic about how.

  • @ Peter Martin

    “This isn’t realistic. Why would the EU want to allow us to use the pound and have separate travel controls?”

    I think it’s realistic because there is a block of sympathetic countries who aren’t in the Euro and who don’t want a federal Europe and will push for the UK to be reincluded on the same terms so that they aren’t pressured to integrate further themselves.

    What is unrealistic is to think we could persuade the country to vote to rejoin if it meant Euro and Schengen. It would be difficult to argue that this was in the national interest having argued that the previous balance of competencies was well judged.

  • Peter Martin 24th Sep '20 - 12:19pm

    @ Marco,

    “there is a block of sympathetic countries who aren’t in the Euro and who don’t want a federal Europe…….”

    This is true. But equally it is true that now the EU has come as far as it has, especially with the introduction of the euro, it has to finish off the grand design to be stable economically and to survive. In other words, it’s a Federal Europe or bust. Emmanuel Macron understands that. Best to keep out of his way and let him get on with it.

    https://www.ft.com/content/d19dc7a6-c33b-4931-9a7e-4a74674da29a

  • Rebecca Taylor 27th Sep '20 - 10:12am

    I think we need to put this issue to bed and my way of doing it is to say the LibDems have a long term aim of rejoining the EU. Don’t need more details than that right now, to go into detail would invite a lot of time wasting, energy sapping debate which will be asking questions we simply can’t answer now.

    When the time is right, we can debate the details. None of know when that will be right now. It could be next year, if Tory Brexit turns out to be as bad as some of us fear. We simply don’t know right now.

    A long term aim to rejoin is a statement of principle. If we won’t stand up for our principles, what is the point?

    And yes, we’ll get some flack even for stating a point of principle, but it will be in the most part from people who don’t and won’t support us anyway. Alternatively, we can abandon Rejoin with a wishy washy EU policy and annoy many of the people most likely to vote for us and a good number of those who already do.

    Let’s be brave and bold and stand up for our principles. Remember that Charles Kennedy opposed the Iraq war before it was remotely fashionable, on a point of principle and was viciously attacked. History proved him right beyond a doubt. Let’s be like Charles!

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