LibLink… Guy Verhofstadt: Europe needs to change, but with Britain at its heart

Writing in the Independent, Guy Verhofstadt, president of the Liberal group in the European Parliament calls for Britain to seek EU-wide reform rather than a swathe of opt-outs.

Other European leaders have stressed their desire for the UK to remain part of the EU, but also that they are not interested in cutting a special deal for the UK alone. They rightly stress that the single market relies on a common set of rules, applied and enforced equally by everyone. At the same time, many on the continent recognise that there is growing need for major changes. Rather than engaging in a fruitless attempt to repatriate powers back to the UK, Cameron should build alliances and work towards EU-wide reform.

This is a clear sign that UKIP’s idea of being in the single market without obeying its rules is a non-starter. One way or another we need to make the rules better, and there are allies out there to be found to do this.

The idea that the Eurozone forms a natural caucus is challenged. A clearer dividing line exists between – in my words, not his – the prudent, trading north, and the indebted protectionist south. (Britain belongs squarely in the north despite recent events so long as we resist deficit denial.) Guy goes on to argue that Britain’s influence is good for the whole EU, not just for Britain.

In the past, Britain has never shied away from promoting its interests in Europe. It has always stood and fought for its interests and principles, profoundly shaping the history of our continent. If Britain were to turn its back now, it would risk the emergence of a different kind of EU, less concerned with British interests but also less liberal, weaker and with a less global perspective. This would be a grave mistake, both for the British people and Europe as a whole. Rather than retreating to the periphery, Britain should take the lead in building an EU that is efficient, accountable and fit for the 21st century.

Read the whole piece here.

* 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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8 Comments

  • Daniel Henry 3rd Jun '13 - 3:26pm

    It was an excellent article and should set the tone for our campaign for the EU election next year.

    I’m hoping that our Policy Working Group for our European Policies present something really strong for this conference!

  • I am really not sure what Guy Verhofstadt means by “less liberal”. I fear he means a kind of Tory ‘liberal’ rather than a much more socially aware Lib Dem ‘liberal’

  • Well, of course the EU needs to change. It has outgrown its constitution and its institutions and is no longer fit for purpose. So, why do senior Lib Dems continue to pretend that all will be solved by an in/out referendum in which (since they clearly don’t want the ‘out’ option) they manage to cast themselves as supporters of the unacceptable status quo as far as the public can tell?

    Verhofstadt points towards the correct solution when he writes: “I am of the view that EU institutions should spend more time developing solutions to Europe’s debt crisis and less on regulating olive oil jars in restaurants”. Exactly! The EU should do only those things which only it can do and which all, or very nearly all, its member countries agree it should do. The agreement of member countries is important because it must be clearly seen that responsibility is passed upwards only when the democratic decision is that it’s the best course of action to do so. Regulating olive oil jars massively fails this test.

    Since that’s not the position we’re in right now the corollary is that there must be a mechanism to pull powers back from the EU where there is either no longer pan-European support for them to remain with Brussels or where Brussels is simply attempting to stick its oar in without clear authority or because existing treaties are so muddled. Rather than a ‘Big Bang’ approach I would do this item by item in response to circumstances by creating a system where EU competence in respect of an item can be challenged by member states if they think that Brussels is getting out of line and, if enough member states agree, the relevant competence would then be repatriated to the members.

    With the added clarity this would bring we could then start worrying about what the EU is doing on the big issues like the debt crisis. Is there any other sphere of government where policy errors so extreme as to lead to nearly 70% youth unemployment in Greece and over 50% in some other countries would not lead to everyone concerned loosing their jobs? I think not. That tells us something important about the democratic deficit in Europe. So, why don’t we propose that certain people in Brussels DO loose their jobs.

  • GF: your post is muddled and you fail to specify what you mean by “outgrown its constitution and its institutions” and “no longer fit for purpose”.

    On one hand you seem to suggest the EU should be reduced and less individual, while on the other have the dramatically increased powers over member states to deal with the economic recession, unemployment and debt.

    Greece (and Cypress) could do with a huge injection of capital (whether anyone feels it would be well spent is another but related issue), do you think the UK should be supplying huge sums in that direction (the money has to come from somewhere)? The EU certainly does not have the money and the budget has not been increased.

    You seem to blame Brussels for unemployment and the debt crisis. Are you suggesting member states should contribute much more to the EU in order to have the means to address these issues?

    From the tone of your post I would think not, but from the content that is what appears to be implied.

  • Martin: The EU has evolved constitutionally from the outset but few would suggest that the current constitutional state of art is ideal or the final word. The debt crisis and rise of UKIP and euro-sceptic parties in other countries say very loudly that there is a some sort of problem even if its not immediately clear what the precise problem is let alone the prescription.

    As far as I am concerned a big part of the problem is that the EU is trying, for whatever reason, to do things it really shouldn’t – regulating olive oil jars being a handy example. While that clearly is a matter of opinion, I suspect it’s one that’s fairly widely shared. So, for anyone that shares that view the question is how to get from here to where we would like to be. For my money the best way to achieve this is to have a re-sorting of competences with some things moving ‘up’ to Brussels and some ‘down’ to member states. This would be an on-going process because circumstances and politics change. However, its the mere existence of such a process would immediately neutralise the ‘ever-greater union’ theme that is one of UKIP’s most effective recruiting sergeants.

    This is not a fully worked out or complete solution and would raise a host of problems as I’m sure you realise. However, it could be a start and that is what the EU needs if it is to rebuild popular support. Also it’s a process that stands aside from and is not particularly connected to the debt crisis.

    I see the Eurozone as the tragic consequence of EU empire building, of trying to run before it could walk and then compounding the problem by lashing something/anything together in a hurry with political objectives taking precedence over good advice. (To be clear: I was opposed to the Euro from the outset and believed it would end in tears – although I didn’t know precisely how). So, I think that what we are seeing is the protracted death of the euro. Cyprus is already effectively out (yes, I know they still call their currency the ‘euro’ but it’s not freely convertible). It may be that the final outcome is that every country has its own currency or there may be two or more groups of countries one of which might well have a currency called ‘euros’. All this is primarily a problem for the EZ countries but inevitably spills over into the full EU and probably has to be resolved one way or another before the EU as a whole can move on. That gives some time for those countries not consumed with coping with the euro fallout to think creatively about the future and could be a great opportunity for the UK to show leadership and an opportunity for Lib Dems to move the debate.

    In short: the Eurozone countries have headed down a blind alley and run into a brick wall at the end of it. When they come to their senses they will see that their only escape is to back out and return to individual currencies or an approximation thereto.

    As to what could or should be done about the debt problems that’s another issue. The key decision is who is to bear the loss with all of the choices equally unpalatable. In general the choice is between (a) shifting losses to the taxpayer (the preferred plan so far), (b) hitting voters’ pensions (by writing down the bank bonds in which they are partly invested, or (c) hitting voters savings accounts (via Cyprus-style ‘bail-ins’). No wonder politicians want to keep kicking the can down the road as long as possible but ultimately the choice has to be made, the money has already been lost in bad investments and paid out in spectacular bonuses.

    In the specific case of Greece and Cyprus the French and German banks did not take their losses but instead used their political clout to get the losses shifted to the public in those countries. (Incidentally, not the EU’s finest moment that it should allow that). So it is wrong to frame this as prudent north, spendthrift south. It more a case of well connected and politically powerful north screwing the south and then blaming the victims.

  • Of non Euro countries, apart from the UK, Denmark and possibly Sweden, the others are on a firm trajectory towards joining the Euro. Amongst the Euro using countries there is close to zero appetite for relinquishing it. Against this, you are correct to identify increasing support for markedly right wing and xenophobic parties that do gain traction by inveighing against ‘Brussels’. Interestingly part of this manifests itself as antipathy towards the UK and the US even more as the Anglo Saxon world is (with some justification in my view) viewed as the source of the present financial difficulties.

  • @Martin
    “Of non Euro countries, apart from the UK, Denmark and possibly Sweden, the others are on a firm trajectory towards joining the Euro”
    Well, that’s not really that surprising as all Member States of the European Union (except Denmark and the United Kingdom) are required to adopt the euro and join the euro area.

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