Opinion: Euro-reformists, not Euro-philes

We are due what will be undoubtedly be a hard general election in 2015, and Liberal Democrats are already lagging behind the other main parties by not planning our post-coalition policy. The economy, of course, is the most obvious issue – an elephant in the room that, this time around, everyone will be fully aware of! Falling back into second place, if not further, is the comparative whale in the fishtank: the EU, and Britain’s place in it.

Few would deny the time for debate is close. As the nation watches what looks like the slow-motion collapse of the Euro, Euroscepticism is on the rise. And with UKIP snapping on our heels in some polls and the Tories keeping their supporters unhappy on the issue, we should start positioning ourselves to fight off the right as well as the left. We will face a Conservative party keen to pick up seats to take a majority in 2015, and our seats will be an easier option than those of Labour’s. Make no mistake, they may be being nice to us at the moment, but the Tories will not hold back when the time comes.

So where should we stand? Certainly in favour of a referendum on membership, something guaranteed in our 2010 manifesto for the next time the relationship between the UK and the EU ‘fundamentally’ changes and reinforced by the Coalition’s referendum lock. Yet we should consider going further and offering a referendum come what may, above and beyond talking more of the reforms we shall make and buoying our democratic credentials. I’d hope to see at least some Lib Dem support of a referendum in the forthcoming debate on the matter in the House of Commons. In general, however, reform of key areas will undoubtedly be a far better, liberal, centrist position for us to hold than advocating leaving completely – a viewpoint that, whether you agree with Peter Oborne’s ‘guilty men’ accusations or not, is already relegated to easily-dismissible fringe groups, and easy to keep there!

We should also be open and blunt about the large reforms that we will make. One obvious place to look for ideas is Nick Clegg’s chapter in The Orange Book, ripe for updating. His suggestion of stopping perpetual change in the EU to help it gain public confidence is good but probably unworkable in the current extended crisis, and talk of scrutinising the European Commission’s workings more thoroughly simply does not go far enough. We should publicly change our approach to the EU, our media spokespeople making clear our belief that it is flawed and in desperate need of reform. Where is the political benefit in making unpopular arguments in defence of the EU in general when we could be telling of our plans, say, to replace CAP? Why should we not criticise the EU for making directives about the types of balloons that children can inflate without adult supervision at all, instead of defending it because unlike what the tabloids say, they’re not actually banning it?

Clegg was right to declare that the EU should act only on issues that have clear cross-border benefits unattainable by nations on their own – from free trade to international crime. He was right to point out the foolishness of countries giving the EU money to have it recycled back to their own deprived areas, right to call for repatriation of powers over social and agricultural policy, and these are issues which the party should become much more aggressive over. The EU is a liberal experiment that has gone awry in certain areas, and pointing out those and seeking to correct them should be our priority.

At present, we are seen as unashamed Europhiles, in puppy love with the EU and wanting to take the UK into the Euro; a position that makes us look ridiculous in the current climate and puts off voters from switching to us. The public has many concerns over the EU that could be dealt with sensibly were clear proposals to be offered in language that matched their fears – instead, they are pushed into the arms of extremists. Although we are EU-reformers in policy terms, we are not yet associated with that in the public mind, being so stunningly bad at selling it. Time to change that.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • If I want to vote for stuff like this there are lots of other parties. I want a party that believes in a United Europe. I suggest the writer joins UKIP.

  • Daniel Henry 19th Oct '11 - 12:24pm

    Good post. I’m not sure I agree supporting a referendum is a good idea. The farce of a debate surrounding AV with scaremongering lies and misinformation dominating the discussion, but maybe if we regulated campaigning to ensure truth and honesty then it would be okay.

    Definitely in favour of us adopting the Euro-reformist position though.
    In every other area of policy we’re at the forefront demanding reform. We have a very localist agenda where we’re keen for people to make the decisions on their local community rather than be dictated by some politicians in a distant capital. Reform and localism are important liberal principles, but they seem absent from our approach to Europe where we come across as weak defenders of the status quo.

    I’m currently drafting a motion for the next conference to get the party to urgently sort put together a coherent vision for a liberal Europe complete with policies to achieve it. I’d like us to have a European policy we can shout about rather than currently mutter quietly.


  • Daniel Henry 19th Oct '11 - 12:40pm

    @ Chris
    I didn’t see any mention in the article of breaking up Europe or leaving it, just a call to reform it.
    There was a suggestion that we need to take certain powers back, but isn’t making decisions as locally as possible a strong part of Lib Dem tradition?

    Wanting to improve and stengthen Europe is very different to wanting to leave it altogether.

  • @Daniel Henry

    Someone who blithely assumes that “wanting to take the UK into the Euro; (is) a position that makes us look ridiculous in the current climate and puts off voters” is making an application for a blog at the telegraph if ever Daniel Hannan is feeling a bit tired. He is buying into everything the tory press have ever told you about the euro.

  • Indeed, most people recognise that the European Union is far from perfect and yes, whilst in the general public that image is magnified by the dodgy reporting of certain papers, that doesn’t discount the fact that the EU can be improved and we as Lib Dems should be at the forefront of that reform……

  • The problem is that the sensible position opined by the writer can somewhat clash with unreconstructed fanatics like Andrew Duff.

    Interesting to note that in the current crisis the European Commission has been shunted stage right and the so called parliament has disappeared off the radar altogether.

  • dasvid thorpe 19th Oct '11 - 3:35pm

    excellent article.
    @chris so anyone that disagrees with your view, which is not party policy as endorsed by conference, they shoudlleave, thats not very liberal and I would question whether you are in the right party.
    Clegg’s chapter in the Orange Book, and thisa article both highlight that the EU, howvere noble and progressive it is in principal, is in dramtaic need of structural reform….we can be the champions of that reform

  • Good idea, bad detail.

    We should be pushing a reform agenda in the EU as anywhere else, I’m not that mad about the idea of an in/out referendum but if the UK would actually be an active player in the EU if the country voted to stay in. then I’d be okay with it.

    But I would say that stopping perpetual change in the EU is a terrible idea. In fact, stopping change for any real time in any institution is a shortcut to stagnation and obsolescence. Stating that the EU is flawed is true, but it is actually the least dysfunctional of our layers of government, this is not a credit to the EU but rather a shame on the UK. We should not shout it too loudly, or we should make it clear that the UK isn’t exactly a paragon of brilliance itself. Stressing that we want to reform CAP, however, is clearly a good idea.

    As for the balloon comment – quite frankly, I consider the fact that the media is quite content to willfully misinterpret a directive that’s over twenty years old as a ban on children blowing up balloons (i.e. that they’re willing to just deliberately write a story they know is factually incorrect) is a far more important thing to tackle than the EU putting warning labels on balloons. In fact, I can’t think of any occasion where there wouldn’t be bigger fish to fry than some overzealous warning labels on packets of balloons, don’t we have real civil liberties to defend?

    I also disagree with Clegg’s position on what the EU powers should be. Where it is advantageous for member states to pool resources, then this should be facilitated and encouraged by the EU. The litmus test should be whether it is beneficial for most of the members to pool sovereignty in an area , not whether it is an area impossible for member states to be effective on by themselves. Common EU foreign and military policies can be advantageous (depending on exactly what is meant) but are evidently aspects of policy that states could or do take care of by themselves.

    Let’s also remember that some of the most harebrained EU policies are exactly in the areas where the EU should operate, even by Clegg’s standards, for instance the CFP is probably the second worst policy to have ever come out of the EU but it is absolutely correct that this should not be a policy for individual states to decide.

    It is true that it is silly to have a country paying into the EU only for that money to return in development funds, but not because the EU is somehow overstepping a remit, but because the country is so negligent of its own deprived areas that any net contributor still needs EU development funds. In the case of the UK it’s not as if places like the north of England or Cornwall have exactly only recently become deprived, we’ve had decades to sort it out prior to joining the EU; and that Brussels has to step in where Westminister won’t is not a failure of the EU, it’s a failure of the UK.

    As an aside, the CAP is a prime example of an area where the EU probably shouldn’t intervene (unless Europe ever does federate, which is to say, unless pigs fly). Unfortunately, it’s there for historical reasons, to replace the heavy intervention of the state in agriculture practiced by most of the original member states and so to allow free trade in agricultural produce between them. It’d be great if it could be axed but the original pushers of the policy (notably France) are still staunch defenders of the policy, as are many of the recently admitted states.

    So, while I agree with the broad thrust of your post, despite being quite keen on the EU myself, I think the fine detail needs to be reworked and rethought. Reform is needed, the EU has genuine flaws and I should be cheering the LDs attempting to make a better EU, instead I’m just vaguely disappointed. An image of a euroreformist LD party would be a good one to attain, but not the image laid out in your post, or the image that Clegg would seek.

    I think the most telling thing about the UK’s attitude to the EU is that the UK is the only country in the bloc where more people consider the EU a bad thing than a good thing (even then only by a few points). The hardline eurosceptics are loud but the prevailing mood about the EU in the UK is really more apathy than anger, the LDs should be mature and make a positive case for the good aspects of the EU, make a case against anything genuinely bad about it (and do their best to reform them) and topple any euromyths along the way. We shouldn’t make a vain attempt to grab eurosceptic Tories, to put it bluntly, I doubt we’ll get them even if we shifted to opposing British membership of the EU!


    The perception of us wanting to take the UK into the Euro does make us look ridiculous. Of course, joining the Euro is not ridiculous (the current crisis being largely about non-enforcement of the rules rather than anything more inherent), but until the currency has stabilised and it is more clear that it is what it is – i.e. the world’s second currency after the US Dollar – any perception of favour for the UK involvement in the currency will seem silly to the electorate.

    Of course, there are sound economic reasons for and against joining the Euro. But it’s a bit difficult to argue for it when many commentators are (hyperbolically) predicting its immediate demise.. I’m under no illusions that if and when the UK joins the Eurozone it will because economic reality makes it a necessity, rather than it being some mass groundswell of pro-Euro feelings. Neither will happen now.

  • DunKhan: Thank you for a considered and Liberal post. The fact is that the EU is serially misrepresented in British politics and media. Providing money to the EU to be invested in the country from which it came is hardly ridiculous unless you find the concept of coordinated economic planning ridiculous. It is all about strategies to stimulate the economy, so that the EU as a whole benefits from growth.

    This is why Norway and Switzerland rightly have to contribute so much to the EU’s development funds, in order that they too can take advantage of economic growth in the EU.

    It is utterly fruitless to pander to Daily Mail/ Express/ UKIP hysteria about EU standards that may relate to balloons. Without EU standards, there would still be national standards, but if the standards were all different there would be back door protectionism. I am not sure whether Zadok Day would support protectionism within the EU, but part of the point of the EU is to prevent protectionism.

    Protectionist arguments are often populist, but this does not mean that they should be supported, still less that the Liberal Democrats should give such arguments their blessing in the hope of electoral gain.

    I don’t even believe there would be any electoral gain, since there will always be other parties who will play the anti EU card more strongly.

    As for an IN/OUT EU referendum, the Lib Dems proposed this in the last parliament, so I will be interested how the parliamentary party will respond this time. I think that the line that resists referendums on lengthily negotiated treaties is a recipe for stagnation is correct. This means that the central question is whether to be or not be a member. A referendum would resolve this question for another generation.

  • Andrew Suffield 19th Oct '11 - 8:03pm

    Not much here that I haven’t said before. The EU is a good idea that hasn’t been executed very well, and it would be better to stake out a position of “making it better”, in opposition to the “waste of money” of the eurosceptics and the “embrace failure” of the europhiles.

  • Andrew Suffield: whilst fully in accord with putting forward a position of improving the EU, I totally reject the apologetic “The EU is a good idea that hasn’t been executed very well”. Imagine the furore if similar statement was said of the NHS: it would be taken as an expression of scepticism and threat towards the NHS.

    The fact that UK politics neuters UK engagement in Europe, is not evidence that the EU is poorly conceived.

    A fully functional united states of Europe might have a much better structure, but currently there is not the political support and will to achieve this. The statement “The EU is a good idea that hasn’t been executed very well” is generally heard from those who wish for a weaker, less effectual Europe, not something with which Lib Dems would want to be associated.

  • Don Lawrence 20th Oct '11 - 12:46pm

    I’m astonished at how badly Fiona Hall has presented her views. Most people read little more than headlines – Fact. What is the article about – Reform of EU Finance. What is the Headline about – Loss of British Rebate. Does she, or the member of her staff who did this, really think this will go down well in the UK and increase support for the party whom she represents?

    What a Muppet.

  • @jedibeeftrix

    Britain would not be a single penny the poorer for withdrawing to the perceived safety of EFTA. Withdrawing from that as well would be economic suicide, but it is of course possible to get the free trade without having to be in the EU itself. There is however, as in all things, a price.

    What the eurosceptics so often fail to mention is that in order to be a member of EFTA, one must enact most of what comes out of Brussels, while getting no say whatsoever in deciding what it is that’s going to become policy.

    This is necessary in order to ensure that no members of the Free Trade Area are working with an unfair competitive advantage, so all the regulations, rules and rights decided on in Brussels have to apply across the tariff-free zone.

    In the case of Norway, for example, they find they must participate in a number of European Union projects in order to interact successfully with their EU neighbours. This is all fine, but they get no votes on those projects. They really do have unelected, unaccountable officials handing down decisions to them with no say in what’s going on.

    We’re better off inside helping to make the decisions than outside having to put up with them.

  • I very much agree with Oranjepan and mostly with Bolivia Newton John, however I sometimes think that the UK needs to experience how it is outside the EU, to understand why it needs to be a fully functioning member.

    The risk is, of course, that some countries would be reluctant to let the UK back in. However if they did then the UK would be obliged to commit itself to the Euro and also adhere to basic democratic standards, which it currently fails to meet.

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