The EU consultation: all right as far as it goes…

Have you gone through the EU consultation sent out from Liberal Democrat HQ by Austin Rathe? I did, answering all the questions or clicking the right options just like a good Lib Dem should – I declared myself committed to staying in the EU, and chose all the suggested benefits of being in the EU: freedom of movement, greater prosperity, no war in Europe thanks to the EU, and so on.

Yet I found the whole exercise unsatisfactory and lacking in nuance. The consultation is full of leading questions. One can only answer as I did (with just a little scope for variation) because to do otherwise would be to take the stance of the Conservatives or UKIP – but this hardly offers a truly rounded assessment of the EU as it exists today.

I expressed my views as I did because, being a liberal, I do accept that the propositions in the consultation are more true than not true. That is why I expect to vote to stay in the EU regardless of what David Cameron manages to renegotiate. On balance, I think the EU is still a good thing and therefore I feel the UK should be in it, both as a matter of playing our part in the world and because it’s in our interest to be there. But do I think the EU is pretty much fine as it is? No I certainly do not – I think it badly needs a major overhaul.

The EU is over-bureaucratic and needs serious liberalisation to ramp up sluggish economic growth. As an institution it works overwhelmingly for its biggest members, above all Germany and France (the tension between their interests generates many of the EU’s biggest problems). Smaller countries like Greece or Cyprus get bullied. And when an awkward issue like foreign migrants crops up it’s every state for itself.

All this is why I’ve argued for the Lib Dems to take the lead in a campaign to reshape the EU radically – not the exercise Cameron is engaged in, which is more about appeasing his own right wing than properly reforming the EU. I actually think we can outflank the Conservatives on their own ground here by arguing that the EU, as an essential entity for Europe’s and our good, is too important to be left much as it is.

So I hope the consultation will not be too decisive in our approach to the EU referendum campaign. By all means let’s campaign to stay in, but without appearing to be cheerleaders for the EU as it is. We cannot pretend that much of the British electorate is unenthusiastic about the EU simply because most of our national press is hostile to it. Our compatriots can see there’s a lot wrong with the EU. Let’s respond to that mood and offer some dynamic solutions.

* Peter Jones is a member in Cardiff and the Vale, and previously a journalist at BBC Monitoring and an analyst at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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21 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Aug '15 - 11:00am

    Very good article Peter. Radical reform of the EU, but to stay in, is a departure from constantly saying “in a reformed EU” and it will get people’s interest, from both the right and the left.

    We need to understand that countries in Europe such as France do not want the EU to be a free trade area. In fact, they don’t really want free trade to be part of it at all, not even in a federal Europe.

    On the other side: Cameron and others want the EU to be a free trade area, but it isn’t going to happen besides in a kind of outer block lacking in influence.

    But what good in a free trade area between a northern block? Some sort of compromise that the whole of Europe can agree on would be better than creating this “two speed” Europe, which really is going to be two different Europe’s for a long time to come.

  • Good piece: “the Party of In” did us no good, because it made it sound as though we accept the status quo, which is unsatisfactory for very many reasons. I liked the way the questionnaire tested some of the propositions about the EU’s weaknesses. I wonder how many will (as I did) acknowledge them, even though other Parties major on them. If we re-run Party of In as opposed to a positive but constructively critical campaign, I shall limit my involvement.

  • Those who campaign to stay in the EU need to start being honest about the direction of the EU. We are in it today because of lies and integration by stealth. Further integration leading to federalism is underway. Our opt out of the Euro is seen by many to be a temporary aberration, to be corrected as soon as possible. Certainly, if full membership of the core EU is desired, membership of the Eurozone is essential.

    Political parties owe it to the public to be honest about their EU intentions.

  • Paul Kennedy 6th Aug '15 - 12:36pm

    I felt similarly frustrated by the questionnaire, so wrote a supplementary email. The referendum is not binding and I do not want to end up campaigning (or indeed voting) in favour of Cameron’s and the Tories’ approach to Europe. We need to give the Tories a bloody nose!

  • I agree – the ‘Party of In’ must be replaced by a party for a modern outlook for the European nations. The inner circle of the Euro nations has already proved to be too doctrinaire and incapable of seeing the needs of dissimilar countries. The Euro group has made far too many regulations which cement their power over the free nations outside the Euro.

    For want of a better title we could work on the ‘Party of Democratic Europe’ in which there is freedom and respect for all countries to develop their economies, their democracies, and cultures. Of course, there needs to be an agreement of shared values and aspirations but not as dominant as that fostered by the current European Parliament. Under the ‘Party of Democratic Europe’ we could advance the democratic rights of British people too – including voting for a government which represents all of us instead of maintaining structures and parties of the past.

  • What do you mean by:

    The EU is over-bureaucratic and needs serious liberalisation?

    You really need to specify. Democratic processes do tend towards more bureaucracy, it is a consequence of the checks and balances. I presume you are not suggesting some kind of reduction in the democratic processes, but what are you referring to? Overall harmonisation introduced by the EU has greatly diminished bureaucracy, but again I presume that you do not want each country to have its own particular set of rules and regulations.

    The trouble is that too much of criticism aimed at the EU consists of vague and poorly justified assertions. This does not mean that there are no genuine criticisms, but unless they are actually specified with justification they lack meaning.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Aug '15 - 2:00pm

    Peter doesn’t need to specify. When someone calls for EU reform let’s not nitpick and turn it into a boring debate about fishery policy.

    There is a time and a place to go into specifics, it isn’t necessarily in an opening article on the internet.

    Regards

  • Eddie: – Lousy comment – I hardly need specify! I do not think you read what I wrote, because I specified different meanings attached to ‘over-bureaucracy’. Another example: without ‘over-bureaucracy’ at Calais, checking everyone has the necessary paperwork there would not be any make-shift camps. There would be no problem in Calais. Other countries manage without the ‘over-bureaucracy’, why don’t we just get rid of it?

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Aug '15 - 3:10pm

    Hi Martin. I did read what you wrote, I just didn’t agree with the emphasis.

    Regards

  • Well said Peter Jones. The article captures my views exactly – it’s something I’ve been saying for 20 years. I want to see reform of the existing constitutional arrangement in the UK so why on earth should I be in favour of a much, much worse one in Europe?

    On the questionnaire itself I also agree. Remarkably poor, full of leading questions and quite unable to capture my views. I completed it of course but to those based in Lib Dem Towers I say please be aware that it tells you nothing useful about my feelings and that if you use it you risk come seriously unstuck. I don’t assume my views are typical but I suspect from recent comment threads that they are reasonably close to some others’ – probably a minority but perhaps a majority.

    On a wider point, politics-by-opinion poll seems to be a favoured approach in the party. I remember some years ago hearing Chris Rennard, then Chief Executive, explaining how the manifesto was written. It was all about focussing on the top 5 or 6 most important policy areas – the economy, education, NHS, housing etc. and then finding something that polled well to say about each, It’s not worked too well has it? Could we please move to a system where the leader, in consultation with the MPs and advisors obviously, works out what is IMPORTANT, what will most transform the country in a good way. That is what UKIP and the SNP do to rather better effect.

  • Leekliberal 6th Aug '15 - 7:33pm

    I’m pro EU but believe it needs to discover the meaning of ‘ Subsidiarity’ which was contained in the Maastricht Treaty. Devolution of decision making to the most local competent level of Government, is an impeccably Liberal tenet and it would be popular too. How about us campaigning for it?

  • Peter Jones 6th Aug '15 - 9:51pm

    Martin, by “over-bureaucratic” I mean a tendency to be overprescriptive and unnecessarily detailed in regulation. The problem is that the origins of the EU lie in a French-German bargain in the early 1950s, and the French, having been on the winning side in WWII, had the upper hand. The French state is notoriously bureaucratic and the European project has developed too much on French lines. And as Leekliberal says, we could do with a lot more subsidiarity in reality (as opposed to in principle) too.

  • Maria Welch 6th Aug '15 - 11:15pm

    “The EU…badly needs a major overhaul”. I totally agree with this, Peter. No political rules are written in stone. Policies need to evolve in response to changing circumstances and they must be acceptable to the majority of people. The challenge is how to start this process. We need to identify the policies that no longer serve the interests of the majority of Europeans and then, as Peter puts it, we need to offer “some dynamic solutions” to both the British public initially and also others in Europe. This would set us apart from the other major parties – we would be acting constructively and it would indicate to the electorate that the Lib Dems have a more mature approach to the EU than these parties.

  • the European project has developed too much on French lines

    I can understand what you mean by that. I am not sure ‘over-bureaucratic’ is the correct term, but I have seen situations where there is an automatic assumption that solutions can be achieved by issuing edicts, but another aspect of the same problem is more like a gaping hole with an absence of rules.

    Overall, as I tried to point out, by harmonising the market there is a very big reduction in bureaucracy and many who want to remove bureaucracy are really out to take self interested advantage of a laisser faire free for all. EU states have not criticised Luxembourg for example, because they know that Luxembourg has operated within the rules as they stand. Those who want to prevent states from taking advantage at the expense of others are rally calling for more bureaucracy, not less.

    What you may be asking for is no more or less bureaucracy, but smarter bureaucracy.

  • Peter, the key here is “the EU, as an essential entity for Europe’s and our good, is too important to be left much as it is.” We MUST stay in – it is far too important to leave. The real debate needs to be about what sort of EUrope – how should it be organised, what should its policies be, what limits should be placed on its power and authority. Hence my piece last week calling for us to adopt the approach of our sister parties in Holland and Sweden in adopting a policy of “a positive and constructive approach towards the EU” and not simply being the party of in. I suspect you and I might disagree strongly on some EU matters and be joined at the hip on others! I want a Treaty change that bars the EU from ever having armed forces. But I also want corporation tax to be set by the EU so so untried like Ireland can’t carry on under cutting all the other members.

  • Tony Fitzpatrick 7th Aug '15 - 8:30am

    Thank you Peter! I agree completely but hadn’t the energy to respond. The EU is the answer but not in it’s cuurent form. It needs to be democratic and federal . For me the two go together. A ” union ” of disparate nations cannot be democratic – it has to be top down and centrist. A federation recognises commonality and difference and therefore has the potential for being democratic. As a party we must be nuanced; to be perceived as THE EU party will mean our views will be written off.

  • “no war in Europe thanks to the EU”

    Oh dear, oh dear!

  • Leekliberal – I agree that the devolution of decision making to competent local level of government is the way to go. The corollary is that sovereignty should be pooled at the pan-European level only for those functions where there is clear advantage to so doing. That could become the core of a properly liberal approach to Europe and would give us a consistent approach for the first time. In practice of course both devolving and pooling are devilishly difficult and beset with pitfalls so much careful work is needed to develop a workable approach.

    You make an interesting point about subsidiarity and the Maastricht Treaty but I think it’s not quite so simple. When John Major, then PM, tried to get it through Parliament the infamous “b*****ds” plus his small majority combined to make it touch and go. What I remember was that quite suddenly one day all the government spokesmen were spouting about how there was nothing to worry about at all because subsidiarity was baked in. It was a claim that came out of nowhere.

    It all sounded a little too good to be true so I read the whole boring, legalistic text of the treaty published over several broadsheet pages (no Internet back then) looking for evidence of subsidiarity as a foundational principle. I found none, only confusion where there should have been clarity and concluded the whole thing was just another exercise in spin. I stand to be corrected if anyone can demonstrate I was wrong – but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Peter Jones (comment 6th August at 9:51 pm),

    Agreed about the origins of the EU reflecting French thinking in the 1950s. I would add that key architects like Jean Monet were socialists and the 1950s generally was probably the high-water mark of confidence and impact for democratic socialism generally (e.g. the Attlee government in Britain). So it was ‘bureaucratic’ in the sense you mean, a very top-down socialist-inspired version of bureaucracy.

    About the time of the Maastricht Treaty an Oxford academic (whose name I forget although I have one of his books around somewhere) published a brilliant Op-Ed in which he suggested there were three competing visions of how the EU should work that he caricatured as the ‘French’, the ‘British’ and the ‘German’.

    The ‘French’ vision was very much on the socialist model with a top-down and powerful bureaucracy. The ‘British’ was to just have a free trade block (in fact a recognisably Conservative view) while the ‘German’ was to have a federal system like the post-war German constitution with subsidiarity as an essential feature.

    The model of Europe we had back then was of course the ‘French’ one. It might have been derailed when the proposed constitution was rejected by voters but, absent any clearly articulated alternative, the Brussels bureaucracy was able to recover their control with the Treaty of Lisbon. Now the Euro has made it morph into a nightmare fourth model – the ‘Stalinist’ perhaps.

    I always wanted a ‘German’ type solution but unfortunately arguing for that is now complicated by the fact that ‘federal’ has suffered a change in meaning – to most people it now signifies ‘unaccountable and over powerful bureaucracy’.

  • Gordon, the Maastricht Treaty was the first to introduced ‘subsidiarity’ and the Lisbon Treaty has strengthened it considerably. Lisbon also introduced the principle of ‘proportionality’ and both were made grounds for a challenge to any EU regulation in the European Court of Justice. To date I do not believe there has been a single case. If there is so much imposition of unnecessary regulation by Brussels why has no-one yet brought a case before the court? Probably because as the Balance of Competences Review discovered the present arrangements work well and are broadly correct in thE balance of powers between the EU and our Parliament. They also found that it was overwhelmingly in Britain’s interest to remain a member. One should remember that the EU DOES NOT draft UK law. The EU issues generic Directives and leaves it to the individual countries to draft and pass appropriate legislation. Our civil servants have a Wesley deserved reputation of drafting unnecessarily complex and rigid rules. The problems largely lie in Westminster rather than in Brussels.

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