New Europeans

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So we are talking about the European Union again.

Some might say we never stopped but the decision we make on this issue at this weekend’s Federal Conference is one of the most important the party has made in many years. In doing so I hope those present bear in my mind that, although the overwhelming majority of Lib Dem activists and members are pro EU, that is not the case amongst the electorate at large.

Conference fever, something I am all too familiar with, resulted in the adoption of the Revoke policy last year; a decision that no one at the top of the party seemed to be in favour of after a disastrous General Election defeat.

What needs to be understood is there is a strand of euroscepticism in Britain that stretches back decades, which is why we didn’t join the Common Market when it was formed and also why Harold Wilson held a referendum in 1975. At that point it was probably fair to say that there was majority support for economic links with our European neighbours; I would argue that it is quite likely that there still is. The transformation of the market into a political union was never put to the people and after Maastricht in 1992 British euroscepticism took on a new lease of life which culminated in the 2016 decision in favour of Brexit.

Now I am not arguing for a minute that because there is a view in society we as Liberals should embrace it. If that was the case we could well end up supporting things like the reintroduction of capital punishment. We do however have to recognise reality and that means leading on any proposal to rejoin the EU anytime soon is at best problematic. It would almost certainly leave us being accused of being anti democratic as we were in 2019 and a hammering at the polls would be the inevitable result.

Voters won’t miss being part of the political construct that is the EU. I haven’t heard anyone lamenting the loss of the European Parliament with perhaps the exception of some of those who used to sit there. The Economy is an entirely different matter and that is where the focus of a pragmatic Liberal Party should be.

A future trade deal with the USA poses a real threat to food standards and a large section of the electorate is alive to that. So I say let us be New Europeans, which means keeping all our internationalist principles but focusing on the bread and butter issues that affect ordinary people. If we do want to re-establish relations with our European neighbours then it should be via the Single Market and Customs Union. Advocating a referendum on that would almost certainly bring other progressive parties on board and more importantly the majority of the people we represent. A winning formula perhaps.


* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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  • Paul Barker 24th Sep '20 - 5:11pm

    Well, no actually.
    The basic division on Brexit in The UK has hardly altered over the last 4 Years, its still a 50/50 split between Pro & Anti EU.
    It is true that only half of The “Remain” part want to Rejoin Now, Pro Europeans are tired & demoralised. However that still gives us around a quarter of the Voters to work with, 4 times as many as back us right now.
    The first job of any Party is to win over the Voters who already agree with it, until we have done that then trying to win over Non-Liberals is a waste of time & money.
    Our job for the next Decade is to persuade Voters who already agree with most of what we stand for to actually Vote for us & trimming our sails to fit in with the other 75% of The UK wont help us do that, it will simply spread confusion & apathy among those who may be ready to listen to us.

  • Denis Mollison 24th Sep '20 - 6:12pm

    “I haven’t heard anyone lamenting the loss of the European Parliament with perhaps the exception of some of those who used to sit there.”

    Well, I do: it needed more powers, but you need to start somewhere. We’re in desperate need of democratic cooperation at the international level, and this was a good start: elected by proportional representation (even in both parts of Ireland by STV), and with a standard of informed and constructive debate much higher than that of our own parliament.

  • Nothing for us here. Make the Conference focus on Social issues with one or two proposals that catch the eye.

  • There are three groups. There are those who want us to make our own decisions as far as possible and trade, collaborate and cooperate with others without conceding sovereignty.

    There are Lib Dems, you can define the attraction much better than this Brexiteer.

    There are those who voted Remain purely because Project Fear was effective or because they had specific fears because of their own financial situation. Many people fear change and did not want the uncertainty of Brexit. The important point about this category is that they voted for practical or financial reasons not for any love of the EU.

    I would say that Euroscepticism is in the majority with regard to ideological considerations. Now that Brexit has (more or less) happened that would be the voting position too.

  • Peter Martin 25th Sep '20 - 4:34am

    @ Paul Barker,

    “its still a 50/50 split between Pro & Anti EU.”

    The roughly 50% split was about whether the UK should have been members of the EU under the previous terms. Those who were in favour weren’t necessarily pro EU. The argument was that we were better off in than out. Those who were against weren’t necessarily anti-EU. What might make sense for countries on the the European mainland doesn’t necessarily make sense for us. We, including most Remainers, were never sold on the idea of the political project. We effectively started the leaving process when we didn’t adopt the euro.

    In any case, those terms won’t be on offer again. So just what the result of the same referendum would be now is both highly hypothethical and irrelevant. We are where we are, as they say. We have to make the best of it.

  • Drew Durning 25th Sep '20 - 10:12am

    One of the main reasons I am a member of the LibDems is that the party has been a positive pro-European voice within a political and media environment that has often been rabidly negative and Eurosceptic. While I agree that as a party we offer a lot more than just a pro-Europe policy, it is fundamental to our future that we do offer the most positive rejoin policy of the mainstream British parties. Anything less is “for the birds”.
    The ideological madness of Johnson and Gove becomes more evident every day and will be baked into everyday life after the end of the year. Every aspect of that: the value of the pound, the relative performance of the economy, permits for lorries to enter Kent, price inflation due to tariffs etc etc is an opportunity to point out to the electorate that Brexit is a disaster and that the LibDems have the answer
    That answer should be a two referendum solution. One on the decision to negotiate and one on the negotiated solution. Timing should be based on the earliest point at which a majority can be found in Parliament for this
    I for one will be voting for the most positive amendment(s) at the conference on Sunday.

  • At the moment it does not really matter to anyone but ourselves what policies we adopt. However I do think that is important to project the right image to those thinking about joining actively the party in the future.
    Because of this I believe we need to make sure hat we continue to discuss the U.K. relationship between ourselves and to have a mechanism in the party to make sure that all members can keep up with the party’s stance on the various problems which are bound to arise from 1st January 2021.
    The issue of our relationship with Europe is not going to disappear.

  • Denis Mollison. Couldn’t agree more. The BBC more or less ignored our MEPs’ contribution to debate. It also let us down by not having a daily “Today in the European Patliament” programme.

  • Zigurds Kronbergs 25th Sep '20 - 12:55pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with Paul Barker. And, actually, Peter Martin, many of us Remainers WERE committed to the political project.
    I have been a member of the party since 1974 but I would seriously contemplate resigning if we water down our commitment to rejoining the EU at the earliest suitable opportunity, subject to a referendum on the terms.

  • David Warren 25th Sep '20 - 2:12pm

    When you joined the Liberal Party in 1974 Zigurds it was the Common Market. Things have moved on considerably since then. As I pointed out in the article there is considerable support in the UK for economic cooperation the same cannot be said for political union.

    Alignment with the Single Market and Customs Union is an achievable goal. Surely half a loaf is better than no loaf at all?

  • Julian Tisi 25th Sep '20 - 4:10pm

    While I agree we must move on and not push for an immediate rejoin, our motion as it stands is too wishy washy in calling for us to “keep all options open”. We need to make sure it’s amended so voters know we would actually start the ball rolling on trying to rejoin if elected. I understand one of the amendments selected does this.

  • John Stevens 26th Sep '20 - 9:00am

    The majority of LD members who joined (or rejoined) since 2016 did so to stop Brexit. They will not imv remain if the policy is to accept Brexit, however that acquiescence is hedged about with “pro-European” sentiments. They will either seek, or create, a party to rejoin the EU, or abandon politics altogether.

  • John Marriott 26th Sep '20 - 10:11am

    As Tim Marshall wrote in his recent book, ‘Prisoners of Geography’, things like mountain ranges, rivers, deserts and oceans play an important rôle in where people feel they belong and how they react to others. There’s at least 22 miles of water between us and Europe not forgetting the water between us and Scandinavia and, if you want to complete the equation, between us and Ireland. That might help to explain the hardwired exceptionalism in many of our citizens.

    Like David Warren, if I read his comment correctly, I supported staying in the EEC back in 1975 (when Heath ‘joined’ us I was living abroad) for primarily economic reasons; we were on our uppers with inflation eventually reaching 25%, and industrial unrest getting worse every winter, the IMP about to call and still awaiting the first oozings of the promised oil from the a North Sea. I think you get the picture.

    I’ve got no problems with the Single Market for goods and services and I liked the rebate. I have always, however, had a problem with the free movement of ‘people’. If you have a job to go to or an offer of a study place both here or over in the EU or anywhere else for that matter that’s fine by me. Otherwise, stay where you are. A United States of Europe? A European Army? No thank you, although I COULD live with a common currency. Why not call it ‘the pound’ over here? If you ask me, the EU expanded too quickly and forgot what Napoleon had allegedly said about an army moving at the speed of its slowest soldier.

    So, like David Warren – and I hope that I have not misunderstood him – I’m all for trade, although whether the pound sterling would be allowed to remain if we were to apply to rejoin in the future is debatable. So, let’s concentrate on that and leave the “Alle Menschen werden Brüder’ stuff out of it. In any case, with countries like a Poland and Hungary stirring it, I really can’t see much progress towards federalism getting much traction in the near future anyway.

    In the meantime, I shall be interested to see whether the upcoming and latest round of brinkmanship between Frost and Barnier comes up with anything positive. If not, with the fight against COVID still unresolved, and a possible Trump triumph against all the odds, 2021 has the potential to be an even worse year than the present one has been so far. As the late Al Jolson used to say to his audience; “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, folks!”

  • John Marriott 26th Sep '20 - 10:13am

    Sorry, for IMP please read IMF!

  • David Warren 26th Sep '20 - 10:29am

    The vast majority of those who joined or rejoined over Brexit have already left John Stevens. When they tidy up the membership lists at HQ our numbers will have dropped by tens of thousands.

  • Peter Martin 26th Sep '20 - 11:54am

    @ David Warren,

    “Economic links were endorsed in the 1975 referendum and still enjoy majority support in the UK.”

    Even as a leaver, I’d agree. As John Marriott says, if I understand him correctly, the EU got ahead of itself and was busy constructing a political project which hardly anyone in the UK was in favour of. How many Remainers wanted full UK implementation of the Lisbon and Maastricht Treaties? If they did they kept very quiet!

    So it’s not that Leavers were anti-European, it was that we didn’t agree with their version of what “Europe” meant. Even their continuing misuse of term “Europe” grates. The real Europe includes such cities as Kiev, Moscow and St Petersburg! Most of would have been OK with the old much smaller EEC.

    So let’s get a FTA organised and get those economic links back. I’m pessimistic that will happen though. The EU has a vested interest in seeing an independent UK fail. Probably we’ll be fine, but we could see a period of hostility and economic warfare between the UK and the EU. That’s going to put Lib Dems in the “enemy camp” if they aren’t careful.

    The LibDems could do themselves some good by speaking up for the sort of Canada ++ style trade deal that will prevent that happening and at the same time solve most of the potential problems on the NI border.

  • John Stevens 26th Sep '20 - 8:53pm

    Thankyou, David Warren for confirming my supposition.

  • David Warren 26th Sep '20 - 11:07pm

    My pleasure John.

  • Antony Watts 29th Sep '20 - 11:30am

    How do you want to be governed? On an isolated little island by a neurotic bunch of Tories. Or on a global platform agreed by 27 other nations?

    I chose global. I chose MEPs and the EU commission.

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