Opinion: Let’s talk about Europe

I’ve been surprised how little trouble Europe has caused the coalition so far. For all that we were vilified as ardent Europhiles during the election, it’s not really been mentioned since. In allowing it to drop off the radar, I think we’re now missing an opportunity.

Labour were always too scared of mention the E-word; so paralysed by their terror of the Mail’s wrath were they. Cameron too seems content to let the issue lie. The Coalition agreement makes it clear in no uncertain terms that this government won’t go anywhere near changing our current relationship with the EU – both sets of negotiators were clearly reluctant to open that can of worms. There will however be a ‘referendum lock’, to approve any future EU treaties. Everyone knows there won’t ever be a referendum – no politician would want to waste the political capital on a referendum which would inevitably be lost in the ensuing hysteria.

So where does that leave our relationship with the EU? The referendum lock will only apply to future treaties. Since Lisbon, the EU can now make amendments to its powers as needed. Conservative bloggers are grumbling but, for now, this thankfully makes the ‘lock’ meaningless, save for placating the Tory-right. Organic change can still happen, just no more large-scale transfer of powers.

This gives the Lib Dems an opportunity – now we’re in government what our Ministers say matters. Yes, we’ve agreed to not pursue a change to our relationship with the EU, but that doesn’t mean we can’t argue for changes in how it operates.

The Lib Dems are the only party united and confident enough to talk openly about how we see the EU and our role in it. Since we’re already tarred by the EU brush, we may as well now be vocal about it and use it to show how we’re the party that’s modern and honest enough to discuss it (new politics and all that).

Now we’re being listened to, let’s rearticulate our arguments about the type of EU we want to see – where members work together on the big international issues – climate change, security, finance – but also where the EU stays out of the national affairs it doesn’t need to intervene it.

Nick Clegg has always been upfront in arguing the EU isn’t perfect (the press curiously tended to ignore that particular nuance of his speeches), and that we’ll only be able to change it from within by being an active player. Now’s our chance. Not through huge (and toxically controversial) reforming treaties, but by getting officials in there to influence and change the working practices. Even William Hague is now saying the UK needs to build its influence in the EU.

We need to sell our vision of an enlarged liberal Europe that makes decisions at the most appropriate level; and in an open, democratically accountable fashion.

Of course, talking about Europe (while staying within the limits of the coalition agreement, naturally), we’ll also be making the Tory-right jittery, causing disquiet amongst their rank-and-file. Maybe then the media can stop going on about how Lib Dems are unhappy with the Coalition and show that by ‘jumping into bed’ with us, plenty of Conservatives have their issues too. It may remind a too-shallow media that we’re not on the verge of merging after all.

Perhaps most importantly, it will allow Nick to demonstrate he’s no Tory, without questioning Coalition policy. It will give him a chance to assert Lib Dem differences. Oh, and if the issue does get the press excited (“Splits, finally!”), it might just make a nice change to have the press ask Ed his views on an actual policy issue too, instead of just asking him constantly how much of a sulk his big-brother’s currently got.

And what better time could there be then just before the Conservative Party Conference…

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


  • @Laurie
    Sensible discussion or mischief making?

    A lot of your post just sounds like a desire to rock the boat for the sake of rocking the boat. Also,
    “big international issues – climate change, security, finance – but also where the EU stays out of the national affairs it doesn’t need to intervene it”

    Doesn’t sound like the reported position of the Lib Dem Party. Didn’t Nick C want to join the Euro at the earliest opportunity (assuming it doesn’t implode), Did he not favour a common EU immigration policy, further integration in justice and home affairs? Didn’t NC try to play both sides when attempting to go for a 3 line whip on abstaining on a referundum, wasn’t there then an attempt to fudge the issue by coming out with an in/out Europe suggestion?

    If you’re going to discuss the issue, go ahead but be honest about the options and don’t do it just because you want to wind up the Tories – otherwise it may come back and bite you on the backside.

  • I doubt even Cameron will want many of his MPs to start tubthumping on Europe at his Conference lest the whole Lisbon referendum issue reappear to haunt them and make them question the AV referendum even more.

    Meanwhile the NHS ‘reforms’ are beginning to sound like pure unadulterated electoral poison.
    The public don’t really care that much about Europe but they sure as hell care about the NHS.
    Liberal Democrat MPs and Nick should begin distancing themselves from Lansley’s mad rerforms as they are going to cause chaos during the Cuts. Just when the NHS will be needed the most it’s going to be torn apart by Conservative idealogues.

  • It would be nice if for once a UK government could talk to Europe more constructively, and, instead of grandstanding on things like the rebate and certain EU directive opt-outs, actually show some leadership on changes that are necessary.

    I am thinking of doing something about the odious CAP and perhaps one could push for a state of affairs where the EU finances actually pass muster for once….

    I always thought that, if the Uk were just a little more constructive in its relations with the EU, we could actually help shape it for the better – and of course also use it more effectively for our advantage.

    If the LibDems in government could slowly nudge the Tories towards behaviour of that kind (and early indicationds are that such a process may be under way), that could be a very good thing.

    However, I would guess that the most successful strategy for this would be rather quiet – not a big public debate in order to define a wedge issue.

    In fact, I think that a big debate about the EU would not win the LibDems votes. It saddens me to say so, but that’s how I’d assess the mood in the country…

  • @Maria
    “In fact, I think that a big debate about the EU would not win the LibDems votes. It saddens me to say so, but that’s how I’d assess the mood in the country…”

    I would have to agree with that, there was an interesting post from Mark Pack yesterday about levels of trust. At present only about 26% of those surveyed trust politicians to tell the truth. One wonders if the decline in trust has anything to do with politicians from all parties saying one thing and doing another on Europe (or a large number of other issues for that matter).

  • John Roffey 2nd Oct '10 - 8:33am

    @ Chris_sh

    Yes, the clear distrust of the political class is well deserved and the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by far the greatest single issue through which this distrust was earned


    This distrust does not manifest itself in direct action, but if the austerity measures continue to bite without clear signs of a recovery – this may change.

  • Theres nothing too pressing to deal with in Europe at the moment. Let’s sort out AV and PR in the Lords first, and if we can get those and get re-elected let’s deal with Europe from 2015. Not shying away from it – it’s just that we’ve already set ourselves quite a lot to do, so let’s get it done and see where we can go from there.

  • Britain is unfortunately still the least integrated member of all EU states, politically, geographically (obvious) and

    It would be a good start to increase the cohesion with the EU-Europe when joining the Schengen Area.

    It would be an even better sign for Britain to stop promoting the accession of Turkey into the EU which could have desastrous effects.

    Finally it could be worth thinking about pooling military budgets among EU members in order to save money.

    all the best from Berlin

  • John Stevens 2nd Oct '10 - 6:38pm

    If the Party wishes to express its pro European principles on an issue which is absolutely central to what Government is all about it should press Cameron to conclude a patrol-sharing deal with the French for our strategic nuclear submarines at the Franco British summit this November. That would not only set a path for retaining a credible nuclear deterrent at a much reduced cost, it would open up the prospect of serious future European defence integration, crucial for all who wish to see a substantially more politically united Europe. More immediately, it would go some way to compensate for the immense damage done to our influence upon the evolution of European integration by our ruling out even contemplating joining the euro for at least five years, which leading members of the Party have added to by criticising, quite unecessarily and frivolously, the key underlining arguments for membership. One might add that it is extraordinary that no one has pointed out that the present deficit reduction plan is entirely in line with the spirit of the Maastricht criteria. It is no exaggeration to say that the LD claim to be “The Party of Europe” is now on the line. Perhaps our leadership think that does not matter? They are mistaken.

  • Laurie Eggleston 4th Oct '10 - 9:17pm

    Hi, sorry for not replying sooner. Was away from laptop this weekend! Thanks for the comments.

    Maybe it is partly down to mischief, but I don’t think a bit of coalition mischief is necessarily a bad thing! I think we’ve convinced people the coalition is stable now. But probably right to concentrate on AV ref for now which is obviously more important.

    Will talking about it lose us votes? I’m not sure. If someone hates the EU, they probably would ever vote for us anyway. And by talking about Europe we’ll be sending a message to those people who say they will no longer vote for us because we’re closet Tories. Who knows, our sensible arguments might actually win some votes. Crazy thought I know.

    I guess my main point (and what I’d love to see) is that now we’re in a coalition and our ministers are having to have sensible discussions on issues, is this not an ideal time to talk about Europe? Instead of the hysterical arguments we can have a rational, sane, and public discussion on it. But maybe we should wait to win the AV battle first!

  • @Laurie Eggleston
    Ah, so if a bit of mischief isn’t a bad thing, I don’t suppose you’ll mind to much if Conservatives start suggesting that there isn’t much point on having an AV referundum as polls suggest that the majority may not be for it? 😉

    I would also question if this was the right time to talk about further integration into Europe regardless of you wanting AV. The Euro zone has got it self into a bit of a pickle as well, how would you convince anyone that it’s a superb idea to join?

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