Liberal Democrats must lead in a new vision for Europe

Jo Johnson’s resignation underlines yet again the disaster that is Brexit.

But the repeated call for a second referendum puts a high level of responsibility on the Remain camp to flesh out details and consequences.

The Liberal Democrats, as the only party campaigning unequivocally for Britain’s membership of the European Union, must take a lead.

A second referendum would mark only the beginning of a momentum which must look far beyond the headlines and slogans of 2018.

Let us speculate, therefore, that there is a second vote and we win.

Then what?

Could Remain celebrations really light up Britain’s streets with political leaders mouthing off sound bites about healing divisions and the rest, while half the country feels cheated.

How can anyone think that will work?

Can a new government really tear up Article 50 and, tail between its legs, keep Britain in the European Union as if nothing has happened?

That will not do the business either.

There is one way out. But to take it on board we must accept that Brexit is symptomatic of a wider challenge. It accompanies an overall questioning of the European Project seen through the rise of the populist right, increased separatist demands and rebellion among the east and central European countries.

Brexit is the strand which has been put to the vote and the EU lost.

Any forward-looking institution would have reacted by looking publicly into what had gone wrong and how problems should be addressed. It would have allowed a formal debate on reform, ensuring that the discussion would be in the arc of our lives, just as the Brexit debate now is.

What is this region? What are our values?  What do the four principles want to achieve? How can the EU be made more democratic? How to tackle corruption. Etc.

This has not happened, at least not in a way that has crossed my Twitter feed. Whether from Johnson, Merkel, Macron or Juncker, all we have had are isolated ideas. There is no formal structure through which we can feel involved.

It is here that Liberal Democrats must take a lead by designing a European vision that is accessible and those skeptical of the EU can begin to accept. It would include abig vision regional picture together with detail of the type of reform needed.

There needs, for example, to be full discussion on shutting down the EU Parliament in Strasbourg. Why do MEPs and staff shuttle between Brussels and Strasbourg costing tax-payers tens of millions a year.

Euro-aficionados say the French would never allow it.  Fine, let France argue its case. Let others argue theirs.

Second, give the European parliament more power by, say, allowing it to introduce legislation.

I will be told that won’t work: Even suggesting it shows the little I know about how the EU operates. My critics may be right, but that would be my own ignorance together with tens of millions of others.

Why is it so difficult to grasp how this regional democratic institution operates? Why not make it easier?

The Liberal Democrats are best placed to explain and sell the next stage of the European Project.

I would love nothing more than to go into a second referendum with every voter holding a bright yellow primer knowing that there is one political party that has done the hard, detailed work and has the ambition to pull Britain out of the mess into which the Tories and Labour have dragged her.

* Humphrey Hawksley is an author and journalist, specializing in international affairs, and on the executive of the Hammersmith and Fulham Party

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • It seems likely we would also need to be able to sell loss of the rebate in exchange for reforms like Strasbourg. We need to be well prepared to sell that possibility.

  • Sandra Hammett 13th Nov '18 - 9:22am

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we should be standing on a platform of remain AND reform.
    Avoid the backlash of going against the EU ref result by arguing for real change beneficial to UK residents.

  • …………………………Can a new government really tear up Article 50 and, tail between its legs, keep Britain in the European Union as if nothing has happened?………….

    That, in a nutshell, is the reason for continuing with the madness that is ‘Brexit’.

    These pages have a history of accepting that many who voted ‘out’ now see that ‘out’ is not a sensible option; why use such emotive words (“tail between its legs”) to describe such a change?
    Today’s politicians have a ‘built in switch’ that prevents the words, “Sorry, events have shown that we got it wrong”, being spoken.
    Theresa May’s pre-referendum predictions have proved correct and yet she still pretends that her ‘disasters’ won’t happen????????????????????

  • John Marriott 13th Nov '18 - 10:06am

    A ‘new vision for Europe’, led by the Liberal Democrat’s? Now, that would be a fine thing, Mr Hawksley. I don’t have a ‘twitter feed’, nor a Facebook page. I just have LDV. So I can’t vouch for your assertion that none of the current crop of leaders or wannabe leaders have a vision.

    Let’s go back a few years. We’ve just commemorated the end of WW1. The Kaiser had a vision for Europe as did Hitler a few years later. Both involved the domination of the Fatherland. Messrs Monet and Schumann had a vision for Europe, largely influenced by the events caused by the other two gentlemen. More recently, even Nick Clegg had a vision of Europe in ten years’ time. It was “more or less the same”, as he infamously said when asked in the Farage debates in the run up to the 2016 Referendum.

    The cynic might argue that, what the Kaiser and Adolf failed to do militarily, post war West Germany and, after 1992, Germany, has achieved in a more legitimate economic fashion. The status quo in Europe suits the big players. However, for the rest it’s hard going.

    I hate this business about wanting ‘to lead’. With the party still struggling to find traction and appearing to some to be a ‘one trick pony’, the Lib Dems don’t seem to have had much luck so far. If any ‘vision’ is going to gain support it has got to be underwritten by honesty. That means acknowledging that Europe has always been and, because of language, traditions and culture, always will be a collection of nation states. You can move the borders around a bit if you want, although not in the case of the U.K. unless you mean the Irish border. However, you are still left with an atavistic loyalty to heritage, which no European superstate can eradicate. And what’s really wrong with pride in your country? Patriotism has its place, despite what Oscar Wilde once said.

    I, like many others still around, voted to stay in the ‘Common Market’ back in 1975. That’s what we wanted. I reckon that that’s what most of the citizens of the other 27 EU member states want deep down as well. So, in the immortal words of Sir John Major, let’s go ‘back to basics’!

  • @David Raw

    My understanding is that Labour policy is for a “jobs first” Brexit – it is not exactly clear what that is – but a Brexit that meets their six tests. IF (say tomorrow!!!) we were to have a General Election and Labour were to gain power – they would NOT be trying to stop Brexit they would be negotiating a Brexit that met their requirements – not having a People’s Vote referendum.

    So yes Brexit can be stopped but NOT by a Labour Government.

  • David Becket 13th Nov '18 - 11:18am

    I hope our leaders are reading this and thinking ahead. If we get a peoples vote we must put a positive view of the EU and identify the changes we will fight for if we stay in the EU. Two are obvious, and were agreed by ALDE in Madrid, stop the parliament meeting in two places and reform of the CAP. There are other areas where reform is required. I hope our leaders are working on a positive reform programme to put forward and not just relying on sound bites against May and Corbyn.

  • David Warren 13th Nov '18 - 11:36am

    One of the best articles I have read from a EU Remain perspective for ages.

    At the moment the Lib Dem position appears to be defence of the status quo in the European Union which is not appealing at all to eurosceptics.

    The fact that EU institutions are seen as undemocratic is a big issue for liberal leavers like me.

    I would be really pleased to see a more rounded and detailed Lib Dem policy on what a reformed EU might look like.

  • @David Raw

    Well I concede that understanding Labour policy is a bit of a challenge to put it mildly 🙂 !

    But my understanding of their position is

    1. Support a Brexit agreement negotiated by the Government that meets their six tests

    2. If the Government’s Brexit agreement is defeated then they want a General Election

    3. Aim to get a Labour Government at such a General Election which would then negotiate their Brexit.

    4. If the Government’s Brexit agreement is voted down and there is NOT a general election than all possible options are on the table including a people’s vote. It is not ruled IN but not ruled OUT.

    Although you don’t provide a direct link – I think the Guardian article at supports my understanding

    But happy for Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn to pop round if I have misunderstood! Or failing that for someone to explain where I have got their steps wrong!

  • Neil Sandison 13th Nov '18 - 12:55pm

    Some of us have argued for some time just going back to a status quo position was untenable and unlikely to garner support from the public like many respondents here i think we should argue as many are already doing in the for a refreshed and reformed EU more engaged with its citizens and more accountable for its decision making perhaps by removing layers of the commission and with much more subsidiarity for member states .

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Nov '18 - 1:34pm

    I agree with the excellent contribution by David Warren, this surely the best piece on the whole Brexit debacle in ages.

    I would say that as it says at length what I have said in several contributions and an article that touched on it months ago.

    The EU gets no criticism from this party even when its leaders are unhelpful and intransigent. Worse, fellow governments of non liberal persuasion get no criticism, only this one, ours, even when other governments are not being constructive or are being awful.

    Barnier and co are purposely not helping as they are showing others they cannot leave or alter things as they are.

    The French government, not merely or mainly the British, were responsible for the conditions in Calais, not one word from our leader Tim, at that point, other than the supposed wickedness of May and company.

    The fact is the UK is doing in a dramatic way, exactly as was in many ways, what others are doing in theirs. Saying “Up Delours!”

    The centralising of power and policy is not liberal even if it is democratic.

    Conserving, which is the best of a conservative philosophy, the national, regional, local identity, is important and it is welcome as a reason for Brexit from moderate supporters of this. Forward thinking line of direction not attack, should relate to it from a liberal perspective. We have that feeling, many of us. I detest the idea of subsuming our traditions or qualities or laws or ways, in a supranational state or superstate.

    Trump is terribly poor and the worst leader. Macron is not. But it was the latter who led to the awful behaviour of the former , with his silly childish twets about the US based on one president, his more silly interest in an EU army based on delusional grandiosity befitting of the man they call Napoleonic.I would have voted for him and if in France, would be in his fold, but think he is in no way helping the cause of unity in Europe, anymore than our fellow Liberal Guy V!

    The party needs more than Cleggite, more of the same.

  • paul barker 13th Nov '18 - 1:35pm

    No, no no.
    Right now the feeling in the rest of The EU is that The UK are messing them about & have no idea what we want. The sympathetic ones think Britain is having a breakdown & the unsympathetic just wish we would go away.
    We have lost any right to criticise EU institutions for Years to come.
    If we succeed in stopping Brexit then a “Period of silence” from the UK would be appreciated & also the best hope of being listened to later.

  • David Becket 13th Nov '18 - 1:48pm

    That is no reason why we should not have a vision, which we promote as the opportunity arises. With other problems facing the EU this could be sooner than you think.

  • @David Raw

    Lol! I’ll look forward to it 🙂 ! However as has been said before it seems to be only Brexit fudge he is making.

    Indeed worse than that as along with Sir Keir who is a skilled lawyer and I’ll give him credit for that – it seems to be something that breaches the trade descriptions act as it isn’t what it says – or is implied – on the tin.

  • Innocent Bystander 13th Nov '18 - 2:50pm

    Michael 1 is quite correct. They have spokes-persons saying entirely different things so as to keep a bet on every horse in the race. Why not? The Tories are holding the ticking bomb and if Labour struck a clear position they would also be holding it. Starmer’s words are meaningless.
    As to the original op-ed, well it’s all too late for that. The UK should have, years ago, been gathering like minded reformers across Europe to push this but that was then and this is now.
    As far as Europe is concerned, the UK has already gone and has no business expressing an opinion on the EU. All that has to be settled is the order of its going.
    I oscillate between tears and rage. There is not a trace of clear leadership anywhere, especially not from the PM whose lifelong response to trouble seems to be to remain completely silent until it goes away.
    My hope is a general election just to see if the Labour divisions on Brexit are easier to handle than the ultra destructive Tory schisms.

  • Nom de Plume 13th Nov '18 - 3:01pm

    How many would be listening to your carefully constructed arguments? How many would be looking for a red bus?

  • Peter Hirst 13th Nov '18 - 4:31pm

    If a confirmatory referendum was won and we remained in the eu, it would be to improve the institution form inside. We need a detailed explanation of how we would work with others to reform the eu, especially making it work for all its citizens. That way we might heal some of the divisions created by the referendum.

  • 4.30 pm….It seems a withdrawal deal has just been agreed…How, when, what is not specified….So talks of a ;done deal’ may well be premature,

  • paul barker 13th Nov '18 - 6:19pm

    The agreement goes befor The Cabinet tomorrow afternoon & then to an EU meeting in 2 weeks.
    The “Meaningful Vote” will presumably happen in mid December. Both Cable & Corbyn are demanding the Right to put Amendments to that Vote.
    What happens if nothing gets a majority ? We are then left with “No Deal” & at that point I would expect Actors from “Outside” Politics to intervene. We could see The “Markets” swing from complacency to despair, we might see Firms issuing Emergency Redundancy Notices or panic buying of Food & Medicines.
    If the worst happens Parliament could be faced with need to do “Something” in Hours or Days, not the Months needed to ask The EU for extensions or organise a “Peoples Vote”. They may have to just abandon Brexit because theres no time for anything else.
    As Tiny Tim said – “God help us, one & all.”

  • David Warren 13th Nov '18 - 6:22pm


    My opinions are formed on my own and not influenced by the media or anyone else.

    The fact that the only elected forum in the EU the European Parliament has no real power is undemocratic.

    The fact that we joined a common market which over time has developed into a political union without the population being consulted is undemocratic.

    I could go on.

    Politicians need to get their heads round why millions of people voted to leave the EU instead of making arrogant statements like ‘they were misled’ or ‘they didn’t know what they were voting for.’

    Disengagement from politics is a major problem and you don’t address it by lecturing the ‘little people.’

  • Just a reminder to the Brexiteers. You voted for Brexit so what ever Brexit you get is yours, you don’t get to weasel out of it by saying “This isn’t my Brexit, my Brexit would have been magnificent”. You voted for the pig in the poke option and no amount of wailing I thought it would be a big fine pig not a rabid dog, if only I’d been warned cuts it either. You where warned Brexit would consume all, weaken the UK and fail to achive anything postive, the fact you failed to pay heed reflects on you and not the people who warned you.

  • John Marriott 13th Nov '18 - 7:34pm

    @Lorenzo Cherin
    The phrase you quoted, which appeared, I seem to recall, in that bastion of eloquent prose, The Sun, was actually; “Up yours, Delors”. Poor old Jacques. Is he still around, I wonder? He must be a very old man if he is. Unless your “up Delours(sic)” means you are a fan of his.

    I see that Johnson B is already ripping into the ‘agreement’ on Brexit that is due before the cabinet tomorrow. Words like “vassaldom” trip off his tongue as does the assertion that ALL of our laws will be decided elsewhere. What utter rubbish. I would go further than Amber Rudd and would say that, not only would I be worried if he were taking me home; I would be frightened to death if he were actually running the country. Mind you, at the moment nobody appears to be running the country. The French have a phrase for it: “un foutoir énorme”.

  • David Warren 13th Nov '18 - 9:09pm


    I want us to leave the EU which is what I am the majority of the British people voted for.

    You asked me to point out which elements of the EU I felt were undemocratic and I highlighted the parliament.

    A body which has about as much power as the Russian Duma.

  • The UK will have to follow the EU’s rules ( or so it seems) so we don’t really seem to be leaving it David. You might have voted for “Lets leave” but that isn’t the Brexit you are being offered, you are being offered the role of rule taker not rule maker. Now I doubt you thought you’d voted for that but that is what you actually did vote for. Taking back control in reality seems to have been a vote for losing control, a bitter pill to swallow when realise it you will. The fantasy of I voted for my own personal Brexit was always a fantasy, no matter what you thought you’d voted for it wasn’t on offer. Many a Brexiteer will be moaning “I’ve been betrayed by Tinkerbell” and blaming remoaners while the truth is this disaster lies in the fantasy they followed and promoted. Still a few verses of “I believe I can fly” with dreams of Admiral Wee Mogg and his Jolly Jack Tars sailing down the channel to biff the evil EU and a belief in a glorious Brexit is bound to appear again gambling on a unicorn on sunlit uplands. Meanwhile the rest of us have to deal with the reality the foolish vote caused.

  • Martin. To discuss democracy you must first define what it is and then decide whether the concept of a pan European democracy is desirable and then whether it would even work.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Nov '18 - 10:46pm


    Delours quote well recounted.


    You are wrong, never fickle, just able to develop and adapt and listen and learn. I liked him, never said we should use him as a model , rather do think the centre ground is where most prefer. I think him correct on a lot of his domestic policies, but he is bull at a gate and hamfisted in ways not good, on all things EU and not as helpful as Francois Fillon would have been, he with a UK wife! You must not think you are always right , we can enjoy your little asides, but as with you as with me as with here, there is hyperbole a plenty!

  • Katharine Pindar 13th Nov '18 - 11:50pm

    We haven’t got ‘a new vision’ for Europe and shouldn’t in my opinion have the hubris to magic one up, since we are British and the British are making a terrible mess of deciding what our relationship with the EU should be. If we do get another referendum, probably to persuade more people that we should stay in we will mostly need to stress that immigration from the EU if sensibly managed isn’t the threat that many apparently thought it to be.

    But we can be more positive in a novel way, if Simon Nixon, chief leader writer of The Times, is to be believed. Though he thinks that EU leaders do need to tackle reform, in an article on November 8 he explained that in fact, ‘All the important levers of economic management lie under national control: governments deploy vast national budgets, deciding what to tax and spend … they are responsible for education and skills policies that determine future productivity; they decide how much to spend on infrastructure and research and development; they set energy policies and decide the size and scope of the public sector.’ So there it is, none of us EU nations have actually lost our national sovereignty after all.

  • Ian Hurdley 14th Nov '18 - 8:31am

    An appropriate forum for a pan-European convention to look at the details of necessary reform exists in the ALDE group of liberal and democratic parties led by Guy Verhofstadt, a man who has shown himself to be a powerful voice in Brussels and a friend of those in the UK who wish to remain within the EU.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 14th Nov '18 - 9:20am

    This has been a fascinating debate. Thank you. Given the high degree of knowledge among contributors it does appears that the Liberal Democrats have yet to create a formal, public platform through which to explore and decide where the Party stands on European change. John Marriott is right in referencing the First World War, particularly as we are now commemorating the Armistice centenary. Because we misjudged that post-war political balance, Europe found itself in conflict again 21-years later and we are in a similar position now, hopefully with less high stakes. Thank you, Martin for your detail on the powers (or lack of them) of the European Parliament. Katharine Pinder is, of course, right about the levers of national sovereignty as is Ian Hurdley on the work of the Alde group. Such detail however is out of reach of the average voters. One thing we have learned over the past few years is how big ideas capture voters’ imagination. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats need to formulate a vision that encompasses the most serious issue of our time, the future of Europe and Britain’s place within it. So far, I don’t think we have one.

  • Antony Watts 14th Nov '18 - 10:39am

    Soubry (Cons), “The best deal that we have with the European Union is the deal that we currently have with European Union. I think there are a lot of people who as they have seen Brexit unfold, they have looked at the reality of it, are now understanding and realising that the truth is that our country has made a terrible mistake.” “We are a member of the European Union, we have not left … If we leave we will never get the same terms that we have now.”

    As a Liberal I echo that.

  • Denis Loretto 14th Nov '18 - 3:23pm

    @ Anthony Watts
    I echo that also and it behoves all of us to pursue the “people’s vote” option as the only practical way to retain EU membership – giving us the opportunity to seek reforms as advocated by Humphrey Hawksley. But what if the possibility of a people’s vote completely evaporates? Difficult decisions will have to be made by MPs including ours.
    Exiting from brexit is rightly our goal. But avoiding the utter disaster of crashing out with no deal and no transition period is our bounden duty.

  • Peter Hirst 15th Nov '18 - 2:39pm

    We are where we are. Our progressive stance on Europe must reflect the reality on the ground. When this is more certain, we can plan the way forward. Presumably leaving will be delayed until a confirmatory referendum is conducted if called. If remain wins that, we might be able to negotiate an improved package that leads to reform of the whole institution. That would involve a lot of work and take a number of years. We might even need a further referendum but at least some good will have come out of the recent events.

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