Opinion: Europe’s moving ahead. Are we part of it or not?

In his annual State of the Union address on Wednesday, European Commission President Barroso issued a clarion call for a ‘federation of nation states’ to take on the challenges facing Europe. The only way forward is more unity and more European integration, said Barroso. But this must be accompanied by more democracy – placing the European Parliament in a central role – and subsidiarity – concentrating EU action on the real issues that need to be dealt with at European level.

There is much for Liberal Democrats to welcome in the speech. The emphasis on the European Parliament, national parliaments and taking a critical look at what should be done at EU level chimes very much with Lib Dem values. These are ideas that have been pushed by Nick Clegg since he was an MEP. A federation does not mean a superstate, and pooling sovereignty is about regaining control, not losing it.

The Commission wants to complete the Single Market, the EU’s economic ‘goldmine’, still dogged by too much protectionism and red tape. It plans to boost renewable energy and investment in green growth, another top Lib Dem priority. Barroso’s prescription for national economic reforms could have been taken from the UK’s Coalition agreement: modernise government, reduce wasteful expenditure, tackle vested interests and make life easier for businesses.

But the overriding move towards a banking union as a step towards fiscal and finally political union means the UK will soon be presented with a stark choice: do we want to shape the future or forever be running to catch up with it? As Barroso said, “no-one will be forced to come along and no-one will be forced to stay out, but the speed will not be dictated by the slowest.”

The next European elections will then be a real choice: a Europe-wide vote on where the EU goes from here. The Lib Dems will need to work with our sister parties in the ELDR and the European Parliament’s ALDE group to put forward a positive case for a realistic EU. We have a strong record in Brussels, Strasbourg and Westminster. European liberals can put their money where their mouth is by proposing a candidate for Commission President in the election campaign.

There is a patriotic case to be made for Europe. One where Britain leads from the front to shape the kind of European Union we want to see. One which reflects British priorities and British values. Two of the EU’s biggest achievements – the Single Market and consolidation of democracy in central and eastern Europe through EU enlargement – were UK-driven ideas. As Barroso said, “we should not leave the defence of the nation to the nationalists and populists.” The Lib Dems are the party that needs to make this case.

* Giles Goodall is a Lib Dem European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England.

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  • Alex Macfie 13th Sep '12 - 1:16pm

    Giles Goodall writes, “The next European elections will then be a real choice: a Europe-wide vote on where the EU goes from here.” That would be nice. Trouble is, past Lib Dem campaigns for European elections have not done that, but instead have focused on domestic issues and almost ignored the issues that MEPs actually have influence over. I really hope our 2014 campaign will be different, but that may be wishful thinking… I suspect that people would have a more favrourable view of the EU if it was clear to them that voting in European elections did actually change things. And for that to happen, the Lib Dems need to make clear what our MEPs do that is different from those of the other parties.
    @Colin Green: Barroso’s political party is in the centre-right EPP group. So if ALDE does propose a candidate for Commission President, it will not be him, and our candidate would likely disagree with the EPP and S&D candidates on a lot of issues.

  • Simon Titley 13th Sep '12 - 1:39pm

    @jedibeeftrix – According to your logic, the Liberal Democrat strategy should be to abandon its principles and simply reorient its policies around the views of whichever party is polling better at any particular time.

    May I suggest an alternative approach? If you agree with UKIP, join it. If you share the longstanding Liberal commitment to cosmopolitan and internationalist values, stick with the Liberal Democrats.

  • This article, though well intentioned, attempts to disguise the real truth behind the developments going on in Europe.
    “The only way forward is more unity and more European integration, said Barroso.” That bit, at least is a correct summation of the intentions of European leaders at the moment. Unfortunately trying to dress this up as some kind of opportunity for the Lib Dems is disastrously optimistic. Come the next Euro elections, the Lib Dems will be desperate to avoid outright humiliation, with the real likelihood we could be relegated to fifth place behind the Greens.

    Anyone reading the European press will understand that what is being discussed is full scale fiscal union and political control, with banking and finance regulated by Europe and new measures like an elected president and more power to the European Parliament. In what way, shape or form is this supposed to be acceptable to a party that preaches decentralisation of power and control to local level?

    I have to second Simon McGrath’s point: a federal Europe is not in Britain’s interests and won’t ever be accepted by the voters. If we can’t block its formation, we need to be having some serious thoughts about what our future relationship with Europe is going to be.

    The EU as we know it, in one way or another, is about to change radically, and we need to be prepared for this. It really is time to do some serious thinking.

  • Richard Dean 13th Sep '12 - 2:33pm

    Crises cause political groupings to either die or grow strong. I suggest it is in the UK’s best interest to be part of a surviving a strengthened Europe.

    A simple example. If the current proposals for Euorpe-wide control of banks morph into something that Europe agrees on, the City of London dies. Better to be in there, in the brouhaha, and surviving, surely?

    Popular sentiment is malleable.

  • Giles Goodall 13th Sep '12 - 2:51pm

    @Louise, Alex: There are good reasons for my optimism. British people are fundamentally pragmatic, and opinion polls tell us this time and again. The most striking thing is not how sceptical people are (which is in itself not a bad thing anyway), but how little they feel they know about the EU. A Europe-wide survey published just two weeks ago by the EP found that 33% of Brits think EU membership is a good thing, 30% a bad thing, and 34% don’t know, despite us having been there almost 40 years.

    More telling still, Brits admit to knowing the least about the EU and how it works among all 27 EU countries on three different measurements. Asked to rate their knowledge on a scale of 1 to 10, 39% said they knew nothing at all about the various EU institutions, 44% were clueless about the personalities and 46% admitted to no knowledge whatsoever of how the institutions work.

    This clearly highlights the opportunitie for arguing a reasonable and reasoned, pragmatic pro-European case.

    @jedibeeftrix: I would recommend reading Barroso’s speech, linked above. He makes a very strong point that what we need is a ‘federation of nation states’ – the member states would remain the building blocks of the EU of the future, as they always have been – but that this is also about a democratic EU, not a bureaucratic or technocratic one. Making the European elections elections about Europe is the first step to improving the whole structure.

    @RC: The Lib Dems have always been in favour of true federalism, which means taking different decisions at the most efficient level – both at transnational and subnational levels. This is the diametric opposite of the ‘superstate’ of anti-European fiction.

  • @ Giles Goodall

    You accuse me of indulging in “anti-European fiction.” Is the desire to control fiscal policy “fiction”? Is the desire to control banking centrally “fiction”? This may be at Eurozone level at the moment, but in future, the Eurozone will be welding itself into a power bloc which will mean Britain’s protests will become increasingly marginalised in the EU context.

    Really, I am quite concerned and alarmed that you are even now maintaining that there is not a serious push on the part of European politicians to mount a major centralising power grab. This is simply not “fiction” as you term it. It is reality, and we have to deal with it, not burying our heads in the sand and pretending that nothing is happening.

    “The Lib Dems have always been in favour of true federalism, which means taking different decisions at the most efficient level – both at transnational and subnational levels.”

    That is quite right. The problem is that what is happening now is a move to take decisions at levels that are not appropriate or efficient. If you read the Italian press, as I do, there are calls by quite senior politicians for all kinds of things, including an elected European president, a common welfare policy, constitutions adopted by pan-European referenda. Now Italy is one of the main cheerleaders for European integration (mainly because they’d rather be governed by Brussels than by Rome) and these ideas may not all be likely to even be discussed now at major European meetings, but the fact that the direction of travel is definitely towards “more Europe” cannot be denied. In a context where most British people’s views on European integration are “thus far but no further” and yet there is a headlong rush towards a more centralised Europe, how can the Liberal Democrats find a policy proposition for the UK that makes any sense.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Sep '12 - 3:25pm

    Alex McFie: “I suspect that people would have a more favourable view of the EU if it was clear to them that voting in European elections did actually change things. ”

    Have you any evidence that it actually does?

  • Harold Macmillan noted in his diary of 1954 “Federation of Europe means Germanisation of Europe. Confederation should be British leadership of Europe.”

    This remains as true today as it was then. The Eurozone will become an economic and political fedaration of states within the European Union, dominated by Germany. Britain has a distinctive leadership role to play in the wider European Union as an independent nation state linking the European Union and Commonwealth in a free trade zone and together with France securing the defence of Europe as the USA reorientates to the Pacific.

    Food security was a primary rationale for entry to the Common market in the 1970’s. Food security remains as much an imperative today as it did then.

    “How can the Liberal Democrats find a policy proposition for the UK that makes sense/” The answer lies in framing the debate on issues central to the competencies of the EU – free trade and economic cooperation, food and energy security, a common foreign policy approach and european defence cooperation.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Sep '12 - 5:42pm

    @RC: More power to the European Parliament means more democratic legitimacy and accountability for the EU. To be clear, increased power to the European Parliament is at the expense of the European Council (i.e. national governments) and the Commission. But in many countries, the positions taken by the national governments in the Council have little parliamentary scrutiny; this is certainly true in the UK. I cannot see how any liberal could oppose giving more power to a democratically elected legislature, taken from unelected bodies. The European Parliament is the main bulwark against the unelected bureaucrats in the Commission and Council; giving it more power can only be a good thing. I would very much like, for example, the EP to have power to initiate legislation, rather than it all coming from the Commission.
    Of course, Eurosceptics are not keen on the idea of increasing the power of the European Parliament because they like to bleat about the EU being undemocratic, so the last thing they want is anything that interferes with their preferred narrative. That is basically Jedibeeftrix’s viewpoint, although he/she dresses it up differently. Then there are people like Jack “Boot” Straw , who recently proposed abolishing the European Parliament, probably because he yearns for the old days when European policy was decided by leaders in smoke-filled rooms with no democratic accountability.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Sep '12 - 5:45pm

    @Malcolm Todd: The media essentially ignores what happens in the European Parliament, even at European elections, and even party European election campaigns tend not to discuss it much (shamefully, that includes ours). Therefore, many people probably don’t realize that they actually *do* have influence over EU policy.

  • The British do not want to integrate and give their sovereignty to Europe. They were happy with what was on the table in 1975, but not this bloated megalomaniacs, gravy train. Sorry,.. what was that? You say I’m wrong?
    Try for once, to be true to your name and be democratic.
    Ask the people via a referendum. No I thought not.
    The most positive thing is that by 2014 it will be a non issue, because the EU will have imploded in on itself.

  • Alex Macfie says :
    ‘Euro sceptics ….. like to bleat about the EU being undemocratic.’
    That’s because it IS undemocratic !!

  • David Evans 13th Sep '12 - 6:26pm

    To suggest Europe is moving ahead, implies the author wants to look on Europe as a vehicle rather than a structure. It creates a nice metaphor for progress. However looking at it as a structure; when the foundations are so shaky, is getting it moving really a good idea?

  • An excellent piece, Giles, thank you. It is good to read something about Europe that is actually factual and informed. It seems to me that Britain never really gets off the starting blocks when it comes to Europe, despite having been in now for almost 40 years (longer than I have been alive!). As you (Giles) point out in your comment, so many British people are clueless when it comes to Europe and the debate here in the UK has never really got beyond the issue of whether we should have joined in the first place. It’s so disheartening, as Britain – with its large population and large economy – could be right at the centre of European affairs if we wanted. Increasingly I think I’d welcome an in/out referendum that might actually lance this boil and get us all to move on.

  • @ Alex Macfie
    “More power to the European Parliament means more democratic legitimacy and accountability for the EU. To be clear, increased power to the European Parliament is at the expense of the European Council (i.e. national governments) and the Commission. But in many countries, the positions taken by the national governments in the Council have little parliamentary scrutiny; this is certainly true in the UK. I cannot see how any liberal could oppose giving more power to a democratically elected legislature, taken from unelected bodies.”

    I would definitely oppose more power over the UK and its interests being given to a body elected by voters of other countries. The key problem with your idea that all increases of electoral power are good is that there is no European “demos”, as current events are showing ever more clearly.

    Having seen the political culture of one other country, Italy, at very close quarters, I don’t want their voters or politicians having anything whatever to do with the government of our country. While on a personal level they are wonderful people and their society has some strengths and lessons for the UK, their political culture is pure poison. Sadly the same is true of many fellow members of the EU.

    @ Stuart

    “It’s so disheartening, as Britain – with its large population and large economy – could be right at the centre of European affairs if we wanted. ”

    Under current circumstances i.e. an unholy financial and political mess created by overweening ambition of European politicians which has yet to reveal its full extent, how exactly would that make the UK a more secure, prosperous country, exactly?

  • I have been looked at very strangely when I have given my opinion (in Lib Dem circles) that the Single European Act is the most dangerous European structure. One reason I say this is because it allows multinationals to enforce their will on all other players in the system, and awards hugely more power to capital than labour. We can see how hard the private sector pressure groups fight against “social Europe”. And all the time, the little person is being screwed, and the right wing press are spreading poison about the evils of Europe, so what should the little person think? That it’s all Europe’s fault, of course.

    Single European Act is also the source of most of the square cucumber / circular banana stories, which where they are not entirely mythical creations of the tabloid press, are actually there to create common standards within a single market!

    Sory, those here who say we could never work with the (evil) other Europeans, the main reason is we have failed to get a media which reports things straight. British people have worked with all sorts of traditions (in colonial days, where they were unable to impose by force or any other means their own system). The world’s constantly getting smaller, the planet will go down in flames if we are not careful. Get used to it – you’ve got to work with others, and if that means sometimes accepting what you might see as an “Italian” modus operandi, then just get on with it. The alternative I am afraid, is ever-increasing conflict, huge movement of peoples, shortage of food, completely unpredictable and extreme weather conditions. Watching the trend in Arctic ice melt this year, and in species extinctions, it looks like it’s coming a lot quicker than had previously been foreseen.

  • @RC: You do understand, don’t you, that MEPs align by ideology and not nationality? Indeed it would be undesirable if MEPs voted according to nationality. What would be the point in voting for MEPs of a particular party if come what may they were going to support the British line, or the Italian line, or whichever country they came from? Also MEPs legislate for the EU as a whole, and form their own political culture, not bound by their domestic political cultures. To take an obvious example, UK Conservative and Lib Dem MEPs are not bound by the Coalition Agreement, and frequently find themselves on opposing sides. Indeed it stands to reason that UK Lib Dems would find a lot more in common with (say) Italian liberals (not that liberalism is very strong in Italian politics, but it does exist) than with UK Conservatives.

  • The proximate driver here is the disaster that is the Euro. It was built to a flawed design (as was widely pointed out at the time) that was pretty well guaranteed to fail – the only uncertainty was the timescale. Now its slow motion collapse is leaving a trail of devastation and unemployment. With no good options available Brussels is only digging a deeper and deeper hole. Barroso’s plan is a desperate last throw that won’t work even if it were politically doable – which it isn’t.

    There should be no illusions here. Barroso is arguing for a step change towards greater central control by Brussels but sugaring his proposals in some fine-sounding words with talk of a greater role for the European Parliament, subsidiarity etc. I am old enough to remember that much the same was done with the Maastricht Treaty when that ran into heavy flak. It wasn’t true then and I don’t believe it now.

    This is, to put it mildly, a constitutional move far greater than any that have gone before in that it eliminates the budgetary sovereignty of member countries. With an established record for frustrating the democratic will of the nations of Europe by denying referenda (or sidelining them when they have given the ‘wrong’ result) and with its economic credibility shot to pieces Barroso has no chance of getting this through and we shouldn’t squander LD’s credibility on it.

    I want to see genuine reform in Europe – reform that actually will, as Giles puts it, “chimes very much with LD values” but this is not it and Barroso is not the man to do it. What we need is for liberals to put forward an alternative vision. With the existing EU establishment literally and metaphorically bankrupt a liberal ‘Plan B’ could soon become the only game in town.

  • > The only way forward is more unity and more European integration
    >The next European elections will then be a real choice: a Europe-wide vote on where the EU goes from here.

    So if the 2014 elections are to be for real choice, the various political fractions within the EU need to move fast to become more integrated and unified and create visions of where the EU goes from here. So that voters know which group and vision the various candidates put forward by the nation state branches belong/subscribe to and hence vote accordingly. Without this level of political integration nation states will still be fielding prospective MEP’s with a nation state agenda.

  • @RC: Your challenge to me implicitly suggests that if we avoided involvement in European affairs then we would somehow be unaffected by them. I’m afraid that if you stick your fingers in your ears and close your eyes really really tight, that’s not going to stop the European economy affecting our own economy. We can either face up to reality and work together with our partners in Europe, or just weather whatever storms they throw at us. This is the whole point: either we share sovereignty with other EU Member States and in return have some control over what happens or don’t share sovereignty and have no control. If even Lib Dems don’t get that then heaven help us.

  • Paul in Twickenham 14th Sep '12 - 12:30am

    Perhaps Karlsruhe might have something to say about “President” Barosso’s proposal?

    Membership of the European Union is of mutual value to ourselves and the rest of Europe with benefits that are well understood and which do not need repeating here. But it is my opinion that Barosso’s plan has no prospect unless (as has happened before) it is implemented through subterfuge, under cover of a crisis or by simply ignoring the expressed will of the people.

    If this proposal is developed and put to a referendum here in the UK then I will actively campaign for its rejection.

    It is a serious mistake to assume that all Liberal Democrats are in favour of a federal Europe.

  • Paul McKeown 14th Sep '12 - 1:32am

    I’m as pro-EU as they come, but I even I find the words “ever closer union” in the Preamble to the founding Treaties annoying. and unnecessary If closer union should occur (and I have no generic objection) it should be through organic changes, rather than the Commission pushing for it. If the Treaties were amended to remove those words, I suspect much of the wind would be removed from the sails of the good ships HMS Europhobe, EUSSR and Kipper.

  • The Eurozone crisis has spawned a breathtaking abandonment of democracy. Prime ministers and presidents approve large money transfers and start unification processes which nobody has ever been asked about, let alone voting for. Very large numbers of citizens across the continent are now Eurosceptics. Barroso and – if we are not careful – Lib Dems are deluding ourselves to think that ever deeper union is on the table in the near future.

  • jedibeeftrix – that’s a great Gladstone quote – thanks.

    Ed Wison – yes, but the ‘breathtaking abandonment of democracy’ happened well before the crisis. It can be dated to at least when the first national referendum was rerun to get the ‘correct’ result.

  • Only one simple problem with the logic of the argument – that democratic elections to the EU lack public relevance.

    The EU must reform itself, particularly the Commission, before the question of relevance can begin to be addressed. An institution which is criticised as undemocratic is not bound by democratic demands.

    I like Barroso, I agree with much he says, but who elected him, who does he represent, who is he accountable to? Not me!

  • Alex Macfie 14th Sep '12 - 2:05pm

    @Oranjepan: “…democratic elections to the EU lack public relevance” Meanwhile, over on another article on this site, about Chris Davies MEP and fisheries, someone has noted that there was no coverage of Chris on the Today Programme when they were actually discussing fish stocks, and that even our party website makes no mention of what Chris has been doing on this issue. If EU elections lack public relevance, then the fault lies largely with the media and our own party for their conspiracy of silence about the European Parliament.

  • Giles Goodall 14th Sep '12 - 2:31pm

    @Alex Macfie: Agree completely about lack of informed coverage, see my post above with numbers that show even by their own assessment Brits know very little about the EU or what it does. Ignorance inevitably leads to scepticism. It reminds me of research about what people think the Lib Dems stand for. When you tell people about our policies, our vote tends to rise significantly.
    @Ed Wilson: We do live in a representative democracy. If people disagree with decisions made by governments on their behalf, they have only to kick them out at the next election.
    @Liberal Eye: Agree that liberals need to articulate their own vision for Europe. Barroso was making precisely this point – that the European elections should be about Europe (for once) and that parties should engage voters with clear choices, including candidates for Commission president. The Lib Dems and ELDR need to do this too.
    @Paul McKeown: ‘Ever closer union’ is indeed a vague concept, yet this has been in the Treaties since 1957 and the same Treaties backed by 2 to 1 British voters when we joined almost 40 years ago. It’s also been in every Treaty change approved by Parliament since. This is not really news.

    By the way, anyone interested in finding out more about Barroso’s thoughts (and let’s remember he’s only putting forward ideas that would have to be agreed by all 27 EU countries), can ask him directly. He’s doing a live interview answering questions by video or text on YouTube next week. You can send questions until 18 September and vote for your favourite ones. He’ll then answer the most popular ones the following evening, 19 September.

    Find out more here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zC1qApatvZI&feature=youtu.be

  • Paul McKeown 14th Sep '12 - 3:03pm

    @Giles Goodall

    My point was not whether it was news or not, but the suggestion that excising the words might well remove a red rag from the nose of the Europhobic bull.

  • @Paul McKeown They’ll just find something else

  • Paul McKeown 14th Sep '12 - 7:16pm


    “remove the imperative to force all members to continually integrate”

    I think that a multi-speed Europe is certainly the way forward. And certain elements should remain optional for new members, too. The Euro and Schengen being obvious examples, but I would suggest for new entrants, such as Iceland, or potentially Norway, the Fisheries policy too, at least in part.

  • @Paul McKeown
    “I think that a multi-speed Europe is certainly the way forward. And certain elements should remain optional for new members, too. ”

    And you’re not the only one, those well known “Europhobic bulls” Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing gave an interview with Speigel, it seems to lay out a quite reasonable approach on the way forward – plus (in diplomatic terms) it seems to be quite scathing of somethings that have happened/are happening.


  • Same old lib dem out of touch with public opion you can’t sell Europe to the mass it I democratic and it’s proven with Norway you can survive outside the eu propoganda out in force. The next election will be fought over Europe so you will get wiped out and if labour stays pro so wil they so looks like the Tories and ukip forming the next goverment look at opinion polls ukip is taking over you what that tell you about your Europe polices all the lib demand would do is sell the uk out to Brussels . What as the eu brought to Britain answer half of Poland thanks EU

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