Opinion: Lib Dems and the EU. Should we assert our Radical Localist side?

Map of the European UnionAt the beginning of the year, the European elections were looking touch and go for the Lib Dems.  Our poll ratings were on the borderline of losing our MEPs, so we took a risk.  We gambled on a strategy that, if it paid off, would win us the few percent of extra votes needed to hold most of our MEPs.  The tactic was to highlight that we are the only truly pro-Europe party, which would attract swing voters from more lukewarm parties. So we went all in with ‘The Party of In’. It was a gamble we lost.

Public opinion of the EU is mixed. People acknowledge the benefits of membership but many think the costs are too high. Polls suggest similar numbers of people want to leave the EU as want to stay in. But if the terms of membership are renegotiated, the majority of people support staying in.

  People want to be in the EU but in a reformed EU.

One of the drawbacks of our ‘Party of In’ message was that is missed much of our party’s position.  We are a radical party, a party of change. We want to reform the EU, and think the best way to affect change in Europe is being at the Heart of Europe. As the Party of In, we rightly talked about the EU positives like protecting jobs and tackling crime but we neglected the importance of reform.  In his TV debate with Nigel Farrage, Nick Clegg even said that he saw the EU in 5 years’ time being much the same as it is now. We sounded like we were for the status quo.

We’re also a party of localism. We believe “Political power should be exercised at the lowest practicable level”. That means councils rather than Regional Assemblies, and Assemblies rather than Westminster. But it also means National Governments rather than the EU. Yet because we rarely make the case for localism we’re seen as the party of Ever Closer Union. In truth, the Lib Dems’ and the public’s opinion align very well.  We just don’t tell anyone.

The EU referendum will be a key issue at the General Election. We have long championed a referendum on EU membership, but believe it should be held at the next EU treaty change. Yet we don’t hear this message often enough in the news.  In contrast, the Conservatives constantly say they will renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe, then they will hold an In/Out referendum. With the success of Eurosceptic parties across Europe, the prospects for change have improved. The result of our ‘Party of In’ message versus the Tories talking constantly about reform means they will take the credit for any change.

So we should assert our Radical Localism.  We should say more loudly that we want to change the EU from within. So please, no more of The Party of In, we are The Party of Reform.

* Colin Green is the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Birmingham Selly Oak.

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25 Comments

  • You should also be the party of Referendum, not just when there is a Treaty change but a referendum in/ out and no if or buts.The voters do not want to be told that it is”dangerous” for them to have their say on Europe, Clegg rammed that message down our throats in the TV debates and for a party that calls itself democratic that smells of hypocrasy!
    A true democratic party would allow the country a referendum with no strings attached.We voted for a Common Market 40 years ago and look what we have now , a Government of Europe!
    Isnt that change enough?
    I am someone that would love to be able to vote LibDem and have done many times in the past , but cannot now vote for party that wishes to deny the people their democratic right to say how their country is governed.

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Jun '14 - 4:13pm

    Agree, agree, agree. See also my post of today. We want to redemocratise the EU.
    The other reason this message is not being heard, aside from our own possible misjudgement, is that the Tories and Labour and the CBI and others did a very good job over 20 years of retranslating ‘reform of the EU’ to mean ‘making it easier for business to trade freely in other countries by removing red tape’ which became ‘assuming all EU regulations are negative, particularly if they impact on individual’s welfare or seek to protect them from exploitation by a possible employer’.

  • The days of truly independent nation states are over. Working together in a democratic fashion is how the world is (and should IMO) move to avoid war, distrust, and selfishness. A system of World Government – dealing with global issues – is surely needed along with devolved powers to communities ……… a Federal type of system.
    I have a DREAM………. that’s what the Lib Dems should aim for – paint a picture of a Liberal world!

  • Yes, I agree, tell you what , why don’t we set up something called mmm lets see, ahh I’ve got it,The United Nations, now that I think would work well!!

  • Greenfield Absolutely! I do not believe it was “the party of IN” message which lost us votes. If you look at previous elections with Euros, we have always scored about half the percentage share for the Euros we have for locals, eg 2009, it was c 28% and c14%, this time c13% and c 7%. Our pro Europe position is already factored in to our vote, and is well known. Even those who do not know have it repeated regularly on the media. No, we lost because of our general unpopularity as a party – losing vote share in both sets of elections (which has been the established pattern over the last 3 sets of May elections anyway.)

    Of course, we should, as we always say, devolve to the lowest capable level of democratic administration, but our ideology also allows, as Greenfield says, for supranational democracy. In an ever smaller world, we cannot ignore supranational action. And if we genuinely believe some sort of democracy to be the best system of control, we cannot just leave international action to backdoor deals. So the European Parliament is a great forerunner for a future of more concerted continent wide action, and global democracy. We should not be surprised that everything doesn’t always go well, but we should NOT give up on this project.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Jun '14 - 5:16pm

    I agree with much of what you say, but we shouldn’t use the phrase “radical localism”. Things should be solved at the level they are best solved at, which can be local, regional, national or international.

    I agree we need to be in the centre of the EU, but not at any price. There is no moral high-ground in throwing fellow citizens in the fire just because others have done so. The Euro itself is not the problem, it is the specific policies of the ECB.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Jun '14 - 5:18pm

    By the way, your last line of the party of Reform, is spot on, so I would use this, rather than radical localist.

  • Did we “gamble on a strategy” or was it one last throw of the dice as Arnie Gibbons described it?

    The “Party of Reform” is much better than “More of the same”.

    At least with Reform in the title, when asked the key question about “How do you see the EU in ten years time?” we should be able to be reasonably confident that whoever is leader will be able to remember a convincing and appealing answer rather than just mumbling “about the same as it is now”.

  • paul barker 3rd Jun '14 - 7:31pm

    No.

  • Stephen Hesketh 3rd Jun '14 - 8:19pm

    @paul barker – I don’t know if you have noticed but the last week has seen a number of good liberals, radicals, egalitarians and others joining and rejoining the party!

    The No/No change message is entirely negative and will not prevent ongoing thought, debate, agreement and advancement. The future is bright, the future is … yellow!

  • The most local level of all is the individual. Sometimes that means not allowing neighbours to police what their neighbours can do, for example in planning.

  • Isn’t the problem with ‘the party of reform’ that the reforms necessary to save the EU (ie, remaking the Eurozone into a proper federal system with monetary transfers, shared fiscal policy, and a proper central bank — basically, towards a federal superstate) are completely opposite to the reforms the UK electorate want to see (ie, returning of competencies back to national governments, loosening of regulations, less freedom of movement, general back-pedalling on the whole ‘ever closer union’ idea)?

    Which ‘reform’ are the Lib Dems for? Reforming the EU into a proper superstate or reforming it back into a free trade agreement, without a parliament and other accoutrements of a putative federal state?

    ‘Cause on this website in the past couple of days I’ve seen people advocating both.

    So which reform of the EU is it the Lib Dems are for? Closer union, or looser ties?

    How do you see the EU in ten years’ time? A proper federal superstate, or a loose association of nations in a free trade agreement but without shared sovereignty?

  • (Personally, I suspect that the reason for Clegg’s awful ‘much the same’ answer to that question — he’s normally slicker than that — is that he dreams of the UK being just a province of a European superstate. That’s the kind of thing that gets him excited. But he knows that saying that would be electoral suicide, I mean, even more so than what actually happened. So he, unable to say what he really thought, and not having prepared an answer, he fumbled it.)

  • “….But he knows that saying that would be electoral suicide, I mean, even more so than what actually happened..”

    Electoral suicide is surely a term that only applies if our own electoral career is on the line. In the circumstances of May 2014 it was merely the electoral chances of 90% of MEPs who lost their seats, not the person who muttered the memorable “much the same” answer.

    I agree he fluffed the answer. Everybody agrees that. Which is remarkable when one remembers that in advance of the 2014 TV debates he was hailed as a great communicator, someone who would “wipe the floor” with Farage. Some believed that he would reproduce an “April 2010 — first TV debate” Cleggmania moment. He did not.

  • Steve Comer 3rd Jun '14 - 10:32pm

    Matt (Bristol) hi – Steve (Bristol) here!
    You said “We want to redemocratise the EU.” True although perhaps “We want to democratise the EU.” might be more accurate. the problem is HOW. To my mind democratisation means bringing institutions that wield power under democratic control.

    In other tiers of government that is what happens (in theory at least). So in Councils, the Officers are accountable to elected members. The UK Civil Service is accountable to Parliament, and their counterparts in the devolved Assemblies/Parliament to them. So what about the EU Commission? That’s where the problem is, the EU is constructed on 3 pillars, the Parliament, The Council, and the Commission.

    The obvious solution for a Democrat like me is for the Commission to be accountable to the European Parliament, but you won’t find the Tories agreeing to that sort of ‘reform’ will you? They are wedded to decisions being taken in the Council by National Government representatives. The trouble is the Council of Minister is no longer fit for purpose. It mostly worked when there was a Common Market of 6 countries (despite General De Gaulle), it was OK when it became a European Community of 9, but was beginning to creak once the European Union had 15 members. With an EU of 28 members, the old system of haggling and horse trading behind close doors just doesn’t work, and is the prime cause of the democratic deficit.

    I start from the premise that as a Radical Localist Liberal I want power exercised as close to the people as possible. This means removing the dead hand of Westminster and Whitehall from local decision making (by ELECTED people not by quangos or self appointed committees), but also accepting that 28 different foreign policies on the Syrian crisis or the Ukraine make little sense in an inter-dependent Europe. Equally one country can’t decide to expand Nuclear Power without impacting on its neighbours (Ireland and Hinkley being a case in point).
    We need a proper EU debate on level of power and where they should rest between the EU, the National level and the local and/or regional level.

    If we do that, not only will people be able to understand how policy is made in the EU, but we will have the flexibility to account for future changes. So if Scotland or Catalonia vote to secede from their current ‘parent’ state, of if Belgium splits into a separate Flanders and Wallonia, then we don’t pretend the whole world’s changed we just adapt and move on. The national boundaries of Europe have always been fluid, and will probably continue to be so (even the UK’s boundaries are less than 100 years old).

    Some will say that is too complicated for a referendum, yet this is precisely what was done with a much less educated electorate when the commonwealth of Australia was formed as the 19th century tuned into the 20th.

  • The obvious solution for a Democrat like me is for the Commission to be accountable to the European Parliament, but you won’t find the Tories agreeing to that sort of ‘reform’ will you

    Well no, but that’s because you can’t have democracy without a demos and there is no pan-European demos and there never will be.

    A parliament implies a state, and Europe is not a state. It’s a treaty organisation comprised of states. There isn’t a NATO parliament, so why would there be an EU parliament?

  • peter tyzack 4th Jun '14 - 7:51am

    our opponents, and the BBC keep saying that we are opposed to a referendum, implying that we are unconditionally pro-Europe. THAT needs redressing.

  • Alex Macfie 4th Jun '14 - 1:34pm

    @Steve Cromer: The European Commission is accountable to the European Parliament. The Parliament can veto a proposed Commission team, and can also sack the Commission (and it has done both of these things). There is room for improvement: it would be better if the Parliament could vote to select/recall individual Commissioners. But it is not correct to say that there is no accountability. Also remember that for the first time the European Parliament has a say in the choice of President of the Commission (and the major European party groups each put forward a candidate for this job).
    “The UK Civil Service is accountable to Parliament”. In theory. However, many government proposals are never put to the vote — and, in particular, ministers and their sherpas are typically not accountable to the UK Parliament over their positions in the European Council. When things are voted on in the Westminster Parliament, the government’s in-built majority combined with the large size of the payroll vote means that the result of most votes is a foregone conclusion. By contrast, no group has a majority in the European Parliament, and there is no payroll vote, so neither the Commission nor the Council can rely on MEPs to do their bidding, and the outcomes of controversial votes are genuinely uncertain.
    Also the European Parliament has equal decision-making power with the Council.
    None of this is to say that democratic accountability in the EU could not be improved, but let’s not implicitly buy into Eurosceptic myths about the EU being unaccountable. Nick Clegg made that mistake in the debate with Farage, not even pointing out that it was a European Parliamentary election that was about to happen, and if you want a say in EU policy you can vote in the election. And he could have added that you should vote Lib Dem if you want MEPs who will vote for policy that would make the EU more liberal. But instead, he participated in the media conspiracy of silence over what the European Parliament actually does, and essentially agreed with the Eurosceptic myth that the only two positions anyone can ever take on the EU are uncritical acceptance or withdrawal.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Jun '14 - 2:10pm


    Public opinion of the EU is mixed. People acknowledge the benefits of membership but many think the costs are too high.

    Most people will also acknowledge that they have not a clue what the EU does. The idea that it is some bad and domineering thing is taken mainly from the right-wing press and from UKIPers and the like who push the EU as something for people to get angry about as a distraction from who is REALLY taking control of this country, which is the big global corporations.

    It’s rather like the way people’s attention was focussed on MPs’ expenses at just the time public anger at huge bonuses to bankers and the like was building up. How well that worked, get people all worked up at dubious expense claims of a few thousand pounds from a few MPs in order to distract their attention from payments in the millions of pounds to many more people doing routine jobs in finance. If you took all the top bankers and started with the one getting the highest salary and bonus and plenty of other “expenses” as well, how many would you need in order to get the same amount as all the expenses claims put together of very MP? It wouldn’t even reach double figures. So how well that worked – make people think politics and politicians are all bad, scheming money-grabbers, from that argue that things should be taken out of their control, put into private hands, and run by – the bankers with their dubious earnings a thousand times that of MPs.

  • We need to dispel the myth that we can have our cake and eat it, that we can renegotiate Europe to our UK liking. A treaty change requires unanimous agreement of all currently 28 nations, the last treaty change took seven years and there are more members now so we are more likely talking ten years of uncertainty for business. How many businesses would invest in the UK when we might pull out of the single market if we do not get our way.

    My point during canvassing in the SE area Euro election was that being in Europe encouraged industries to invest here rather than moving jobs abroad, but that LibDems would work for a better Europe for us by greater involvement. This we could have done without the uncertainties of a future treaty.

  • Martin Lowe 4th Jun '14 - 8:15pm

    @Bill (12:31)

    Well no, but that’s because you can’t have democracy without a demos and there is no pan-European demos and there never will be.

    A demos is an electorate of the eligible – nothing more.
    It has no mystical properties embued with nationhood or similar, no matter what the historically ignorant may try and tell you.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jun '14 - 10:29pm

    Immoral action being taken tomorrow by the European Central Bank. An unholy alliance of right and left wingers using savers and pensioners to subside debt to the hilt. Right wingers like it because makes the banks richer and left wingers like it becomes it helps debtors. Negative interest rates, what a joke, recipe for disaster if ever there was one.

  • Robert Wootton 5th Jun '14 - 11:32am

    Hi Steve (Bristol) I totally agree with your analysis. The European Commission needs to be accountable to the European Parliament.
    Bill; you are right, there is no pan-European demos. However, the European Parliament should be able to enact legislation that would establish an equitable economic system across the EU because the MEPs are not or should not be, subject to the pressure of establishment and vested interests of other countries of the EU. A pan-European Economic System Architecture that would create a level playing field and eliminate poverty and as a corollary end the stimulus for the incidence of economic migrants amongst the EU member states.

    There is no common culture, language or legal systems between the UK and the EU member states. In cybernetic terms, the EU is a nonsense. (See the critique by Raul Espejo on his website Syncho).

    A common Fair and Just economic system that ends the enslavement by poverty for the people of Europe would also be a unifying force that permits the full expression of the individual culture of the Member states.

    And perhaps take the wind out of the sails of the pan European Euro-sceptic parties.

  • Robert Wootton 5th Jun '14 - 11:47am

    I have been reading Mark Pack’s “101 ways to win an election” From reading Alex MacFie’s comment, Nick Clegg fell into the trap of letting Nigel Farage set the agenda and the argument.

    “None of this is to say that democratic accountability in the EU could not be improved, but let’s not implicitly buy into Eurosceptic myths about the EU being unaccountable. Nick Clegg made that mistake in the debate with Farage, not even pointing out that it was a European Parliamentary election that was about to happen, and if you want a say in EU policy you can vote in the election. And he could have added that you should vote Lib Dem if you want MEPs who will vote for policy that would make the EU more liberal. But instead, he participated in the media conspiracy of silence over what the European Parliament actually does, and essentially agreed with the Eurosceptic myth that the only two positions anyone can ever take on the EU are uncritical acceptance or withdrawal.” End of quote.

    So Nick Clegg and his advisors should also read and take on board the advice given in the book.

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