The Independent View: Clegg can’t just take on Farage – he also needs to spell out his own vision for EU reform

Like all political obsessives up and down the country I’ve stocked up on popcorn ahead of Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage’s upcoming duels over Europe in anticipation of some captivating political theatre. However, from my more sober perspective as a political analyst, such a binary, ‘all-or-nothing’ debate over Europe is fundamentally flawed as it does not speak to where the majority of the British public are at. Polls have consistently shown that when respondents are offered options beyond staying in on the current terms or leaving altogether, the option of staying in a reformed/slimmed down EU proves the most popular across the political spectrum.

People hold different views about how they would like to see the European Union develop. Which of these statements comes closest to your view?


Source: YouGov poll for Open Europe, February 2014

As the polling demonstrates, the public is split over the question of the UK’s future in Europe, although staying in a less integrated Europe is by far the single most popular option across the political spectrum, including among Lib Dem voters (more so than among Labour voters!) and even among a substantial chunk of UKIP voters. The concern is that the debates will focus on whether the UK ought to leave or stay in at any cost, thereby ignoring the wider debate about how best to achieve EU reform.

David Cameron’s EU policy may suffer from a number of shortcomings but to his credit, he is at least trying to achieve the reforms that a majority of the public want. Nick Clegg has also acknowledged that the EU needs reform on a number of occasions and he recently set out a “bold” three-pronged agenda based on further trade liberalisation within the single market as well as between the EU and the rest of the world, slimmed down EU institutions and less regulation, and greater democratic accountability via an increased role for national parliaments. This is welcome, even if it falls short of the more ambitious and comprehensive vision for EU reform – with powers flowing back to member states – that he set out back when he was an MEP.

However, at the same event, he undermined his own message by claiming that the most that Cameron’s reform strategy could achieve – which includes all the objectives set out by Clegg himself – as “a few crumbs from the top European table… a little tweak here and there”. This is hugely unhelpful as it plays into the narrative that the UK has virtually no influence over the direction and development of the EU and must take what it is given.

Moreover, there are large gaps in Clegg’s argument when it comes to the future of UK-EU relations. How would the Lib Dems react if the UK were to lose an EU legal case over the safeguards it applies to prevent potential abuse of the UK welfare system by EU migrants? The party supports the so-called ‘right to reside test’ so would they accept its axing at the behest of the European Commission and Court of Justice? Likewise, the party supports safeguards to prevent the rules of the EU’s single market from being set by the Eurozone bloc to the detriment of non-euro member states. Would Lib Dems still insist on staying in if in the longer term the EU became an extension of the Eurozone?

This all matters because in the event of the Coalition being extended post-2015, the two parties will have to hammer out a common position on EU reform/renegotiation prior to a 2017 referendum which Cameron has made clear is an absolute red line for him. Hopefully, Clegg will use the debates to flesh out his ideas for EU reform in greater detail instead of repeating discredited claims about 3 million jobs being lost in the event of an exit. Ultimately, with the public more or less split down the middle on the in/out question, reform is not only not only worth pursuing as an end in itself, but also as a means of securing an ‘in’ vote when the referendum eventually comes.


* Pawel Swidlicki is a researcher at Open Europe, an independent think tank campaigning for EU reform

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • jedibeeftrix 25th Mar '14 - 1:32pm

    Excellent article, thank you Pawel.

  • You can’t argue with your analysis. There’s very few people who want to be even more integrated with Europe. Your right Nick needs to set out what he thinks needs to be reformed.

    This is the weakness of Farage’s argument. Out of the EU we’ll have no ability whatsoever to influence EU policy but will have to comply with whatever conditions they put on us to trade with the EU block.

  • Nick Clegg should be made to read and re-read this article.

    I am 100% behind what it says. Being “the party of in” can’t mean being the party that wants Europe travelling in the direction it is now, which is clearly utterly unacceptable to the majority of the UK public. Only 10% want further integration and Nick has to say what he’ll do to stop this and chart a new direction.

  • Always interested in groups like Open Europe who claim to be an “independent think tank”.
    They helpfully provide a it’s of their “supporters” —

    Pru Leith and Sir Ian Botham share this status with a lot of businessen (and a few women). This of course does not mean they are not “independent”. They are quite obviously not all Liberal Democrats. In fact I found it difficult to find many but maybe others can rove e wrong.

  • RC – I totally agree.

    I suspect that Lib Dem support for the situation more or less as now is greatly boosted by many supporters following the Party line with respect to the EU by default and by some who cannot stomach it leaving the Party altogether. Yet even so YouGov’s poll reveals that about half as many Lib Dems favour outright withdrawal as carrying on more or less as now. Nick Clegg may imagine he’s giving a firm lead but if so he ought to be told that much of the Party isn’t behind him.

    There is, of course, anther possibility – that Nick Clegg sees himself as leading the reformist ‘less integrated Europe’ group represented by the green bars which is the majority view among all groups except UKIP. Certainly the “ambitious and comprehensive” vision (linked in the post) he set out when he was an MEP suggests that that is his view.

    However, the “three-pronged agenda” (also linked in the post) he recently set out at the Centre for European Reform doesn’t carry through with that earlier vision. He uses the first half of his speech at the CER to set up then demolish a strawman of his own creation and for the rest appears starry-eyed about the prospects for the TTIP (EU-US trade agreement currently being negotiated in conditions of great secrecy). The whole point of a “less integrated Europe” is to return powers over what happens to member countries unless there are over-riding reasons to make decisions collectively in Brussels. Yet the premise of the TTIP is to remove decisions about regulation from member countries AND from Brussels and hand it to multinational corporations. Potentially this will involve Monsanto deciding on GM crops and fracking companies drilling wherever they want with no publically accountable oversight. The public outrage that will follow might well destroy the EU.

    Of course we need reform, but first of all we need to have a clear understanding of just what reform is proposed.

  • Cameron isn’t trying to acheive anything that a reasonable person would call ‘reform’ and the EU most certainly doesn’t need his wrecking tactics. We need Clegg to speak for the large proportion of the population who understand that EU membership is vital for our economy and has brought enormous cultural and personal benefits for every one of us.

    If there’s a level of our government that drastically needs reform, it’s Westminster. Next to that shocking failure of pseudo democracy the EU does a very good job of working effectively for its people.

  • Chris – You say that, “the EU does a very good job of working effectively for its people.” Presumably you are excluding the people of Greece, Spain, Ireland etc.

  • GF – apart from in the imaginary Europhobe world where it’s vital for governments to be able to borrow recklessly and Ireland doesn’t have a vastly higher per capita GDP than the UK, how does your comment make any sense?

  • Pro-European 25th Mar '14 - 7:44pm

    … because “sovereignty”, to them, means central government power, not distributed power ?

  • Chris Manners 26th Mar '14 - 1:35am

    ” Would Lib Dems still insist on staying in if in the longer term the EU became an extension of the Eurozone?”

    I appreciate you’re thinking longer term there, but don’t think you need to- making the Eurozone work in its own right is a big enough problem for long enough.

    Farage could make a sensible point that perhaps being in the EU but not the Eurozone might turn out to be not so different to not being in the EU. But I don’t think it follows that we should leave, for well-known reasons.

  • I think I may very much be in the minority here but I broadly support the direction of travel within the European Union. I have problems with the way compromises are struck and legislation can be rushed. These are the mechanics but the principle to me is that there are certain things which are in Britain’s national which it can only achieve at a European level.

    For example, I would want there to be a single market. However, for this to be completed, there needs to be an acceptance of a role for the european commission to set and drive standards up which are agreed by member states.

    That also means I fully support the principle of free and open borders for migration. For a single market to work, labour, not capital must be able to move. For that to work, it needs to be the case that a person entitled to protections in one member state should not then be exposed to risks in another – for example in their occupational health, health and safety and protection of their data.

    So much of public opinion is (mis)informed by nasty, vindictive people with a misplaced sense of history that I can understand why its easy to be hostile to Europe. I’m not confident in the ability of ministers (in this government) to strike side-deals with other member states. Their behaviour is more of a hectoring, spoilt brat attitude of ‘we don’t like it, you must change or we will leave’.

    I hope very much there is the backbone within political leadership to say that to achieve any chance of real and lasting change requires a change in attitude. In particular, the need to broadly commit to the principles of the european union, build constructive relationships with european institutions and agree to resolve disputes at a european level over matters which were agreed at a european level.

    I hope if anything, the big issue on where this attitude really matters a lot is within justice and home affairs.

    Finally, there is zero point in coalition ministers complaining about a democratic deficit. They seem to do everything possible to breed apathy in european elections. Finally, those self-same ministers when elected in 2010, did not win any kind of mandate to govern nor to start the march out of the european union. If the conservatives really wanted that, they should have had a minority government in 2010.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 26th Mar '14 - 9:03am

    Nick Clegg will have to make the decision, before and during these debates, on whether to concentrate in the debate on populist, inter-party terms or to appeal to Lib Dems. Concerning the latter, the problem with appearing to appeal to Lib Dems is that he has managed to lose much of our broader base of support by being too much on the right of the party. So he should pitch for what used to be our broader base and include IN the left of the party, including me – as he likes the IN tag. He needs therefore to be very broadly centrist and state the reasons why being in the EU is good for Britain.


    The listeners and viewers want to know the emphasis he places on reform of the EU. Nick is supposed to be one of the original thinkers on EU reform. I don’t know what his views are now – because Lib Dem thinking has largely been crowded out by the media in recent years and by the undemocratic processes of Westminster – giving Lib Dems little voice as a party in parliament. So we will listen intently to the reforms he wants. We don’t want to get bogged down in what is or is not possible as that will be a dreadful error of judgement.

  • Julian Tisi 26th Mar '14 - 9:43am

    Nick Clegg needs to have some concrete examples of reform being achieved from within. As Pawel rightly points out we need to challenge the view that the EU is some unreformable monolith, impervious to change. At the same time, looking at the Conservatives, he needs to show how this change has happened through collaboration not confrontation. Being positive about Europe needs to be shown to be something that a patriotic Briton would see to be in their interest. Nick’s “shipping forecast and queuing” speech has helped in this regard – it’s set the ground out nicely, as up until now being pro-European is seen as being in contradiction with being pro-British.

  • The Jedi seems to miss my point.
    It was not a case of attacking the man rather than the ball.

    I was suggesting that the people who own the ball, own the stadium, own the team, sometimes might have an influence

    People who claim to be “independent” should be accountable for that claim.

    This organisation claims to be ” independent think tank “. It is not unreasonable to ask “How independent?”, “How much independent thinking?” .

    In 2014 many so-called think tanks do not seem to think beyond ” who is paying the piper?”, and “what tune would they like?”

    The tune being played by the piper

  • This is a reasoned article, but I think that the issue unfortunately, turned ‘binary’, at the birth of the Euro currency. As Alex Salmond is struggling to grasp over sterling, you cannot have 2 or more sovereign countries ‘dabbling’, over a single currency. It requires one responsible ‘agency’, to make core decisions on the management of that currency and other domestic issues such as tax levels VAT, public spending decisions etc. In other words a central sovereignty, (Brussels ~ Berlin), and a sovereignty that the British public see increasingly being pulled away from the UK. That is simply not acceptable.
    Anyhow,.. for those who might be interested in tonight’s debate this appears a reasonable link.—26th-march-87667

  • I am amazed at how the few Liberal supports left can still believe and trust what Nick Clegg has to say.
    It is blatantly obvious that were it not for the likes of UKIP, that he, Cameron and Milliband would not even be considering any debate on the E.U. at all. Both the Conservatives and Labour lied about holding a referendum and the Liberals don’t want one at all.
    This country has been drip fed untruths by slight of hand politicians since the inception of the supposed Common Market.
    Even now we are being told that we cannot survive outside of the E.U……..It doesn’t seem to affect the USA, Japan, China etc.
    The E.U. needs our market just as much as we need theirs, so no they wont cut off their nose to spite their face.
    However it’s about much more than trade, it’s about the right of self determination.
    The E.U is ruled by an unelected group of Commissionaires (along the lines of the Communist Party Politburo) and we the voting public have no means of removing them no matter what they do. Is this what the Lib / Lab / Con stand for, a totalitarian state.
    The leading politicians in this country are in a state of denial. Westminster is in effect and administration arm of Brussels. They say and we do.
    No matter what reforms may be discussed, the chances are they would not be implemented. Remember Tony Blair giving up a large part of our rebate in exchange for a reform of the agricultural budget….we lost the rebate and then the E.U. then just ignored the reforms, and he lost what he was edging for, the E.U. Presidency.
    I want my democratic vote and the ability to remove politicians via the ballot box.
    As a consequence I am prepared to vote for any party that will provide it and to leave the E.U if necessary.

  • Nick Clegg will have to make a far better argument than the fallacy that we have to be in the eu to trade with it, and that it is our major trading partner, it isn’t. He will have to make a good argument as to exactly what benefit we get from subsidising this entity with our tax money which could be better employed putting the NHS back in kilter. There is of course the basic problem that on a personal basis Clegg has to back the eu because having worked there his contract demands it, or his pension will suddenly disappear, so in essence he can’t look after our best interest because he has his own to consider.

  • Chris – Although the EU and the Eurozone are different, the latter represents the ambition of the ruling establishment of former in a way that we in Britain tend to forget, isolated as we are to some extent by the pound from the disaster that has overtaken a substantial part of Europe.

    What can be done at this point is hard to say since the problem was largely baked-in when the euro was set up as a politically-inspired move despite many warnings that the design was fatally flawed. As such the EU cannot evade a heavy responsibility for the bad outcome. What has actually been done in response to the crisis in the case of Greece for instance is rather than let those who made bad investments (eg some German and French banks in particular) loose their money they have been bailed out at taxpayer expense so that Greece now has a higher debt than at the beginning of the crisis and a much smaller economy. Similarly unpalatable things have been done elsewhere.

    Any management – corporate or government – must be judged partly on how it soundly it draws up plans and partly on how well it responds to the inevitable crises that arise. The EU looks like a fail on both counts and, as my first comment suggests, it is shaping up for another major fail on the TTIP.

  • Pawel Swidlicki 26th Mar '14 - 4:44pm

    Thanks for all your comments and feedback.

    @Gareth Willson – Indeed, the onus will be on Farage to present a credible alternative to EU membership but instead it looks like he will go with the sovereignty/identity argument.

    @JohnTilley – Sorry but I just don’t get what you’re getting at – we’re an independent and cross party think tank and anyone who wants to support us by putting their name to our EU reform agenda can do so.

    @Chris and @Julian Tisi – As I said in the post Cameron’s strategy is not perfect and he has unnecessarily alienated potential allies with careless rhetoric on immigration. However, you’re right to point out that the UK has made some progress on EU reform already – cutting the budget, reforming fisheries policy, reforming climate and energy policy etc. This requires a balance of being able to work with others and strike compromises, but also you need to be able to go against the grain and actively oppose the EU on occasions to get reform – its not always a smooth and painless process because there are so many vested interests involved,

    @Geoffrey Payne and @sfk – Of course making the EU work requires the transfer of some powers but there is a case for looking at this area by area. For example when it comes to making the single market work you need EU rules and EU institutions to enforce them but it is less obvious why the EU needs to be involved in say regional development policy in wealthier member states. If you look at the YouGov polling data on our website you see many voters make that distinction across different policy areas – the chart above reflect general attitudes towards the EU.

    @Chris Manners – In some ways it is a longer-term risk but at the same time the warning signals are already there – see for example the UK’s legal challenge to the ECB’s policy that currency clearing houses dealing in euros should be located in the Eurozone and not in London – this is clearly discriminatory under single market rules. Worth remembering that under new voting rules due to come in November the Eurozone states will have an inbuilt majority in the Council of Ministers.

  • David Evershed 26th Mar '14 - 4:47pm

    Since the Uk imports far more from the EU than it exports to the EU, leaving the EU and raised trade barriers would mean new UK jobs substituting for imports would be greater than the jobs lost from reduced exports.

    However, such protectionism is likely to be worse for the country in the long term because the lost competitiveness is bad for business and consumers alike.

  • Leekliberal 26th Mar '14 - 6:12pm

    Whatever happened to subsidiarity? Remember it? It was frequently mentioned at the time of the Maastricht Treaty and it’s what we liberals want.

  • Robert Wootton 26th Mar '14 - 10:39pm

    Subsidiarity is the key to a viable EU. The scientific term for this is “level of recursion”. Decisions should be made about the issues by the people or organisation that has to implement them.
    Also what is needed is a common EU wide types of business organisation if what is needed is economic stability and well being. Otherwise the disparate languages, cultures and taxation and benefit systems of the member states will be a source of political instability, especially as there is not at present a stable, fair and free economic system operating within the member states. The European Parliament MEPs need to legislate a new system into existence.

  • Leekliberal – A good question; what did happen to subsidiarity?

    I remember when the Maastricht Treaty was being negotiated there was growing rebellion in the Conservative Party (this was the time when John Major famously described some euro-sceptic MP as “bastards”) and, with a small majority (net of rebels), every possible argument, however weak, had to be thrown into the pot.

    One such argument was that Maastricht was fine because it embodied the idea of ‘subsidiarity’ so no-one should worry. Although the idea of subsidiarity in one way or another is a very old one it hadn’t been part of the Maastricht debate (at least not so anyone not actually involved would notice) one day and then the next day – bang! there it was suddenly discovered as a foundational principle. Deus ex machina.

    I took the trouble to read the text (by this time already agreed) looking for evidence of subsidiarity which, as a foundational principle would no doubt shine through (or so one might imagine) even though the term itself might not be used. I have to tell you that I found no evidence of subsidiarity in the Treaty at all. Rather, I found a remarkable lack of clarity about who should do what. Working towards “ever-greater union” is a far better characterisation of the foundational thinking behind the Treaty. Unsurprisingly, UKIP was founded soon afterwards. In other words all the fine talk about subsidiarity was total BS designed to get John Major out of a hole but taken at face value by some who should have known better.

    If subsidiarity is to be meaningful we need a revised treaty setting out how its to work and also how particular responsibilities are divided between Brussels and national governments and here the Tenth Amendment to the US constitution could be a model. That should be the new vision the author of this post calls for and would provide real Europhiles a way forward instead of trying to blag acceptance with dodgy arguments.

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