Opinion: The Tory Party has mutated. It is for us to say Europe is our hope for the future

David Cameron’s renunciation of a Treaty not even yet fully negotiated was the culmination of a process that began around 1992.

In 1992 a small group of Tory ultras, “the Maastricht Rebels”, began fighting their party’s traditional pro-Europeanism. It has taken 19 years to make their fringe views a normal Conservative Party and conservative press position. 1992 has led to 2011 like a river flows to the sea.

Anti-Europeanism’s hold on a major political movement has caused a poorly informed anti-Europeanism to take hold among many of our fellow citizens in the UK, as it has among some of our fellow citizens in other European states.
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Nationalism germinates during economic distress. The early 1980s are an example in my own lifetime: would Labour have had its anti-European phase, or the response to the Falklands have been the same, if the economic life of the country was not so hard at the time?

By pro-European, I mean:

a) In favour of Britain’s membership of the EU, and

b) Generally positive and ambitious for the good that could be done by action at a European level.

Consider House of Commons debates on the Consumer Protection Act 1987. The 1987 Act implements a European Directive. One Tory MP attacked this. The response of all his fellow Conservatives was almost vitriolic. They saw the benefits of the Act and in the basic policy it implemented being universal across Europe – benefits for the consumer and for business who would not have to deal with totally different requirements in every state.

Now, a Tory MP speaking out for the benefits of shared solutions to common problems in Europe is rare and would be heckled by his own side. The euro-scepticism of Tory activists, who accept what they read in the Daily Mail, means pro-Europeans who were Tory Ministers and MPs in 1987 are unlikely to be selected even as candidates now.

Liberal Democrats and Labour must take some blame for changes in public sentiment. When the Conservatives talked about “Saving the Pound” it was expedient for us to concentrate on schools and hospitals, which delivered record numbers of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs in 1997, 2001 and 2005. While Britain reaped the benefits of putting Tories out of power, it now suffers the effect of anti-Europeanism going unchallenged for too long.

Now is the time to start winning the argument. As we face the challenges of the 21st century we need the states of Europe to bind themselves closely together to ensure the survival and success of European values: like the values set out in the Oxford Manifesto of 1947.

Europe is not just a place or a political entity. Europe is a set of values.

The threats to these values are economic, social, environmental and military. They come from more than one point of the compass. Our best chance in answering each challenge lies in co-operation rather than isolation.

European co-operation remains the brave new frontier. The place where exciting things can happen. Where our fate does not rest solely on decisions of the G2 (America and China). Together we have the largest economy in the world and unrivalled combined diplomatic potential. We have huge combined military spending that should be able to see off any threat to our peace and security. By working together we can do more to conquer cancer, HIV and use science for the common good. We can reform our legal systems to protect the cross-border lives and businesses we enjoy today. We share a cultural heritage of Shakespeare and Mozart.

30% to 40% of British citizens still define themselves as pro-Europeans. We should aim to win every one of their votes. We are told that only 19% yet disapprove of the Prime Minister’s recent action. If all 19% vote Liberal Democrat in 2014 we will gain several more MEPs.

I am British and European. I am really proud of it. If you feel the same then let’s start telling everyone. To borrow the closing sentence of Barak Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, “my heart is full of love for this country”.

Antony Hook is Vice-Chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group and was a running mate of Sharon Bowles and Catherine Bearder in 2009.

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  • Sadly, a referendum will not “lance this boil and decide once and for all iif we want to be a part of this European Union or not”.

    Should the UK decide to leave the EU I believe, for the forseeable future at least, that will be that. However, if the vote is to remain in the EU, does anyone seriously believe that the Eurosceptics will just ‘go away’?

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Dec '11 - 2:30pm

    GF is, peculiarly, right — we’ve got away with the u-turn on the referendum, but it’s as much of a volte-face as the tuition fee fiasco (suggestive perhaps of how much people really care about either issue) — except for the suggestion that being in government means the Lib Dems can “call it”: quite obviously, Cameron would never wear it; but then, right-wingers seem to find it as hard to understand as some on the left that we’re the minority influence in this coalition…

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Dec '11 - 3:22pm

    “It’s certainly no tuition fees debacle in the grand scale of unkept promises.”

    Indeed not — but why not? As I tried to suggest (but not very clearly), it’s probably (partly) because most people really don’t care that much about Europe; but quite a lot of people care very intensely about tuition fees. Whether that’s a sensible ordering of priorities is another matter.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 20th Dec '11 - 3:56pm

    @Guido “The Liberal Democrats believe that Britain should have a referendum, not on the narrow question of adopting this new treaty, but on the big question that faces Britain, whether we remain a part of the EU or not.”

    It might be worth reflecting on what was actually in the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto:

    The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote
    on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain
    committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs
    up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

    (my bolding)

    That’s slightly different….

  • Richard Swales 20th Dec '11 - 5:28pm

    The reason the UK is Eurosceptic is still has primarily argument-based politics * and no arguments are ever advanced in favour of closer European integration. I myself am a UK citizen but live in Europe but even I don’t see what positive for me, after my 1992 rights, has come out of European integration (as distinct from expansion) in the last 20 years, I should be the kind of person who would be making the pro-European case, but you haven’t advanced the arguments even to me.

    In the above article, all we have is a discussion on the mechanics of how the decsions are made and the politics of arguing it all – not where the actual benefits lie. We are assured that member states collectively have enough muscle to easily see off countries that might attack them, which only raises the question of why EU-driven change is necessary in this area. Saying “look, aren’t those eurosceptics pretty awful people?” is not an argument for closer european integration but it’s the only one we ever hear.

    You mention economics, why not start making the case for why, since last Friday when it became the “good European” thing to think, you have thought that an absolute maximum deficit of 3 percent of GDP makes sense in any future recession but not the current one and why you think that the new treaty is credible and the eurozone countries won’t just rip it up come the next recession. (Clue – saying “only the bond markets don’t think it’s credible and look, aren’t those market-people horrible and Anglo-Saxon biased” is not an argument for why it is credible).

    * (and based on the “opinions as fashion-accessories” style of politics, well sorry, but gold stars don’t look good on a dark blue background don’t look anything like as good as the national flags, so you won’t get many people without arguments).

  • As a Pro-European, I want to see Europe work, and work well. Which means it needs to reform, in order to become more open, more liberal and more efficient.

    The list of things it could do overnight to kill the so-called sceptics’ arguments stone dead goes on, starting with ending the Strasbourg farce and working on from there. So what we need to do is make the case for reform. We should be Eurosceptic in the sense that we are sceptical of the current system of bureaucracy and its ability to best serve Europe as a whole. There’s a lot of room to argue there, especially since the Europhobes’ collective view seems to favour flouncing off in a huff to dream dreams of Empire in a Commonwealth free trade bloc or somesuch similar. Maybe in 1930, but this is 2011. For now…

    An In or Out Referendum on Europe is not appropriate now. For one thing, it’d flush the whole European recovery away if key members like Britain start heading for the exit. But there will come a time when the next stage of ever-closer-union comes along and at that point, Britain needs to decide whether it wants to be in that club or not. If it involves things like rigid 3% deficit caps and parliaments that migrate seasonally… it would be difficult to argue in favour from a liberal point of view.

  • Having listened long and hard to Europhobes over the years, and had arguments aplenty with them, it seems to me that their armoury electorally, and their hold these days on so many votes, is principally a mixture of two things.

    Firstly (and unsurprisingly, although listening to their wriggling and writhing on this point, it is hard sometimes to say), a nationalism which expresses itself as a belief that any democratic body at a supranational level MUST be illegitimate, and therefore UNdemocratic.

    Secondly, an opposition to often unpopular but necessary aspects of effective government at any level, ie, law / rules / regulation, and taxation.

    The fusion of these two has been the most lethal for the pro European (and any internationalist democratic) cause. That is, of course, why, the argument is one of principle, and why, on the principle of the international cooperation at European level, the pro-Euro case can be won. It is why we could fight an In / Out referendum with at least a 50 / 50 hope we could win. Any referendum mentioning specific administrative or taxation powers would almost certainly be lost (as, it would, of course, at national or local levels also).

    I really don’t think it is the case of arguing different forms of EU, although you might make support (or opposition) more partisan, by arguing for a “socialist Europe” for instance (much as the Thatcherites argued for the Single European Act, and all the free market tosh that came with it). We Lib Dems have often argued the case for a “Green Europe” for instance. Irrespective of type, though, there are many who will oppose law or regulation to achieve particular policy ends, and their use of the illegitimacy argument to ram home that opposition.

  • Richard Swales 21st Dec '11 - 10:49am

    The trouble for saying we would be there arguing for a “different kind of Europe”, is it hugely overestimates the ability of British politicians, often speaking through translators, to use their rhetorical brilliance to persuade continental voters and polticians to dump beliefs which they hold just as sincerely and deeply as we hold ours.

    Part of the reason why the public are suspicious of us on Europe, is we* have never admitted we were wrong to want the UK to join the euro – it was still somewhere in the last manifesto even – suggesting that the party would prefer to see us in the middle of the debt crisis at the moment waiting upon the latest inept decision to come out of the Frankfurt group. This is something the Labour party has managed to put behind them. The second reason to be suspicious of Europe generally and to value British citizenship more highly than European citizenship is that it too often seems that Britain (and other states if you live there) is a place where you are allowed to disagree and that is all part of the fun and part of being a good British (or whatever national) citizen – whereas Europe seems to be a place where you must agree or you are a splitter, isolated and a traitor – being a citizen of that seems to be something like being a member of Labour students.

    Also there are not 2 sides, europhiles or europhobes, there are at least four main positions:

    1. Leave the EU and the EEA.
    2. Leave the EU but stay in the EEA.
    3. Stay in the EU but don’t join the euro, keep opt outs.
    4. Stay in EU, join euro, support more treaties for more cooperation.

    (of course it gets more complicated when we decide what opt outs and what new treaties, and under what conditions to join the euro and )

    Part of why supporters of position 4 are viewed with suspicion is that they do these ad hoc psychological evaluations of supporters of positions 1-3 and diagnose them as suffering from “europhobia” or of being co-dependent with the Murdoch press or alternatively characterise them as all wanting position 1, instead of actually making the case for why positions 1-3 are worse than postion 4.

    This problem with the pro-European camp is part of why they didn’t listen to the warnings about the 3 percent rule back in the nineties and is therefore one of the main roots of the crisis.

    * as a party, not me personally as I never supported it.

  • We have a bigger and more fundamental problem to overcome before the europhobes can be put to bed – linguistic. No, nothing to do with our shameful failures in languages, but in two two-letter words; “we” and “us”. The European debate is eternally phrased using the language of “us and them”, of “Britain’s relationship with Europe”, when in fact ‘we’ are ‘them’, and ‘we’ have a relationship with the rest of Europe.
    Even for the people who ignore thousands of years of shared culture, of philosophy, of languages, trade, etc, the geographical realities are ignored, preferring to pretend that somehow ‘we’ got involved with something far away.

    It’s emotion, instinctive reaction. Mine is that I’d defend Denmark before Durham, and leap to the aid of Nice before Newcastle – because the ones allegedly ‘in my country’, I’ve never been to, have no afinity for, and frankly don’t care about, but the ones I’m told I’m not a part of because of lines on maps drawn long before I was born, I care deeply about, as we together actively work to forge a common future based on our shared past. Sadly, cheap xenophobia is quick and easy, and when the entire media establishment base every page and second of their output on it, it’s rather difficult to get around.

    On the topic of a referendum, surely the laws of equal airtime would require about two decades of unremitting pro-European coverage first, before one could be held?

  • And, of course, Simon Banks, reform will often mean giving the European Parliament more realistic (greater) powers also, which will improve its democratic credentials.

    JBT – surely, we need to be building the “multi polity union” and the international identity to make it work. The “hard times” were why the construction of such a body was undertaken in the first place – the initial phase occurring when we were in the shadow of hard times across Europe. Your argument is a counsel of defeatism and despair, and unfortunately will lead to more of the same, ie war and international misery. My view has always been that the EU, African Union, and similar continental bodies, are testbeds for a wider democratic UN. We can’t afford NOT to develop common identities when we have somany problems that need international / cross-border solutions.

  • @Simon Banks

    By being on of these people who attack euro-sceptics and call them anti-Europeans you’re only increasing the public perception of the Lib Dems as being more pro-EU, anti-reform. It’s only euro-sceptics who really challenge the EU on its faults. Day to day Euro-reformers need to be euro-sceptics, not opposing them.

  • @JBT

    “No, that is mere procedural tinkering . My problem is a more fundamental one; I recognise in myself no european identity, I look around and see it in no-one else, therefore i cannot view as legitimate a european governance.”

    I hear what you’re saying there. But take the idea, replace ‘European’ with ‘British’, and you have a problem. If your criteria for legitimate governance is built exclusively around this kind of identity politics, there’s going to be trouble ahead with separatists and such. Salmond of the SNP is hugging himself with glee as the Little Englanders win the argument over Europe, because if Little England is good then what’s wrong with Little Scotland? And thus we separate down into our own little imagined communities. Before the decade’s out, there could be six or seven ‘countries’ in Britain alone. Not in and of itself a problem, but its generally held that a system with more components is inherently more chaotic, unstable and harder to coordinate towards mutually beneficial goals.

    My notion of legitimate governance is all about it being accountable, democratically mandated and open. It is also of vital importance that the right issues are addressed at the right level, there’s no point having Westminster dictate on bin collections, no point in Brussels directing the city bus routes.

    But there are issues that can and should be addressed on a pan-European level. The EU should be a force for coordinating efforts across Europe on matters that affect all of us, grand infrastructure, mutual defence, the environment, and we need to be arguing for that, and against the opaque bureaucracy that has built up around those goals.

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