The Independent View: Could Europe be an unlikely area of consensus for the revamped Coalition 2.0?

Following the bad blood within the coalition over the collapse of Lords reform and the constituency boundary review, there has been much speculation that the two parties will enact a policy ‘reset’ after conference season, with Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander already reportedly working out the details. Most people looking for potential fresh common ground between Tories and Lib Dems would hardly place ‘Europe’ at the top of their list. However, while the parties are unlikely to ever see eye to eye on the EU, given political will, there are a number of areas of potential agreement.

For example, both parties already agree on the need to amend the Working Time Directive. However, in terms of immediate action and potential achievability, there is no better target than reforming the EU budget. While the UK and other member states struggle to balance their books, the EU budget has grown year on year despite the vast majority of spending going on policies at best irrelevant, and at worst outright damaging, in the fight to deliver the jobs and growth Europe so desperately needs.

Around 40% of the budget still goes on the Common Agricultural Policy; mostly subsidies to farmers and landowners which act as an outright disincentive for modernisation given they are de-linked from any meaningful economic activity. It is difficult to think of a policy more offensive to liberal values than the CAP: market distorting, sustained by effective lobbying from vested interests, staggeringly wasteful and inefficient, and disproportionately harmful to the least well off in society via higher food prices. Moreover, despite the Commission’s rhetoric, the CAP’s ‘green’ credentials are poor. Slimming down and radically refocusing the CAP by explicitly tying it to environmental objectives such as biodiversity would not only be hugely efficient, it would add credibility to the coalition’s claim of being the ‘greenest government ever’.

Another area in need of overhaul is EU regional spending; the current structure involving all regions in all member states, irrespective of their relative wealth, is economically irrational. For this reason, spending should be limited to the least wealthy member states where it can have the biggest positive impact, an objective endorsed by Nick Clegg. This would save the UK around £4bn net over seven years which could be ploughed straight back into developing the UK’s least wealthy regions, helping the Lib Dems to achieve their long-standing ambition of ‘rebalancing’ the economy away from its over-reliance on London and the South-East.

These measures would require the coalition adopting a much tougher line in the on-going negotiations over the EU’s next long-term budget than it has done, or else risk the existing flawed spending patterns becoming locked in until 2020. While achieving these reforms will not be easy, if pitched correctly, they could command support all across Europe.

These measures would deliver a number of wins; saving UK taxpayers’ cash, soothing coalition tensions, and securing electoral popularity – Lib Dem members and voters are in tune with national opinion in wanting more national control over many policy areas currently significantly influenced by Brussels. Having shown that they can be ‘tough’ on the EU, Lib Dems would then have greater credibility when making the positive case for its continued involvement in other areas.

* Pawel Swidlicki is a researcher at Open Europe, an independent think tank campaigning for EU reform

Read more by or more about , , , or .
This entry was posted in Europe / International, News and Op-eds.


  • Paul McKeown 11th Aug '12 - 10:06am

    Well, the accession negotiations with Iceland should give the EU a chance to rethink its fisheries policy.

  • Simon Titley 11th Aug '12 - 10:46am

    The sheer arrogance of this “independent view” is breathtaking. Even assuming the Liberal Democrats and the Tories could agree on such an agenda, how on earth would they deliver it?

    Leaving aside the deep flaws in this eurosceptic policy, the UK is in no postion to impose it unilaterally. The EU comprises 27 member states, and major reforms require agreement. That is where consensus must be achieved, not merely between two British political parties. And it doesn’t help that the Conservative Party, by withdrawing from the EPP group of parties, has lost any influence it had over other European parties of the centre-right.

    I see that the author, Pawel Swidlicki, belongs to the right-wing think tank Open Europe. Not much thinking going on, I’d say.

  • Sup with the devil with a long spoon! The motivation of the Tories on Europe are poles apart from that of the Lib Dems. The unremittingly negative attitudes emanating from the UK, mean that at present it will not get much of a hearing amongst the rest of the EU. The “tougher line in the on-going negotiations” is largely a busted flush. The Tories will treat the Lib Dems as ‘useful idiots’ who can find a more sympathetic ear and it is not for Lib Dems to be pushing a Tory agenda on Europe.

    Extending the importance of biodiversity and environmental issues in the Common Agricultural Policy is good, but it is a separate issue to overall costs. Basically if your priority is environmental issues then do not expect a budget reduction (and vice versa).

    I really do not get the EU regional spending argument. Somehow £4bn is saved. Presumably money that would have gone to the regions, so that it can be spent on the regions?

    Surely, the point of EU development funds and regional spending is to create some coherent planning. Immediately my attention is drawn to the lack of a sense that the Lib Dems are the party that is cooperating with politicians from other states in Europe. Whilst the Tories clearly years for a weakened EU, surely Lib Dems stand for a strong EU, coordinating policies and interests, that can stand up to other powerful political economic blocks on the world stage.

    The Lib Dems will never benefit from being apologetic about Europe , Lib Dems are widely seen as an internationalist and pro EU party. We need to be prepared to stand up for this stance.

  • Is it really the case that both Parties agree on the need to amend the Working Time Directive? I certainly hope not! I am a strong supporter of the Working Time Directive – which protects employees in terms of working hours, rest breaks and meal breaks etc.

  • rob heale’s i’m alright jack attitude is shocking. stop thinking about your lunchbreaks and start thinking about how we cut unemployment using less rigid regulation.

  • Jedi: re “It will be money that is spent with a closer representative link”. That sounds suspiciously like shovelling loads of dosh at marginal constituencies. One role of the EU is to provide coordinated longer term planning. We are relying on regional development in the newer member countries to provide an engine of growth across the EU.

    In any case, Simon Titley has outed the rogue origin of this thinly veiled partisan piece, that is totally out of touch with what the EU is trying to achieve, what is stands for and how it operates.

    Let me repeat, there is absolutely nothing to be gained for Lib Dems to attempt to outflank the Europhobes: it is futile; directionless and self defeating.

  • My message to Tom Jones (above comment) is to start thinking about industrial democracy, partnerships, co-operatives and profit sharing schemes, which have been a part of Liberal thinking for a very long time. Further “deregulation” should not be at the expense of employee rights, health and safety at work.

  • Paul McKeown 11th Aug '12 - 7:31pm

    Pretty much agree with everything Martin has written above.

  • The two parties can agree all they like but, after Cameron’s populist tactics at the European Council last December, the other member states will be about as likely to back any such proposals as the House of Commons are to pass legislation to implement the ideas of the solitary Respect party’s MP.

  • ‘LibDem members … in tune with national opinion’ sounds good to me, probably a better idea to make sure the public know that we are the only party in tune with them than to spend too much time hoping for miracles with the Tories, and getting shafted in the process (again..).

  • Dane,
    integration is universally accepted as the best next option after the ideal of free trade, which doesn’t work because free trade is by nature unregulated, and trust in unregulated systems is naive.

    If you want economic benefits with greater inequality, go for free trade. If you don’t want the economic and financial crisis which follows, you can’t avoid integration.

    Free trade may be the ideal, but integration is the pragmatic compromise.

  • Pawel Swidlicki 13th Aug '12 - 11:41am

    Thanks for all your comments.

    @ Simon Titley, Martin, Paul R

    Regarding your comments about the achievability of EU budget reform – As I have stated, it will not be an easy exercise, not least because of all the vested interests that do well out of the current system. However, as the 2nd biggest net contributor to the budget after Germany, the UK has both a right and a duty to ensure the money delivers added value – i.e. above and beyond what would be achieved by spending it nationally. In some cases, e.g. humanitarian aid, research & development it does, but far too much spending does not.

    With its veto over the whole next seven year framework, the UK is in a position of strength the situation is not the same as with the eurozone fiscal treaty – for a start the UK is not in the euro! However, the key will be for the UK to combine this ‘negative’ factor with a ‘positive’ message of how we could both cut spending and deliver better value for money for EU taxpayers – this is where the UK’s diplomats will really have to earn their money.
    It is worth noting that reforming the EU budget will also significantly reduce the UK’s rebate – this should be very popular with other member states, not least France!

    @ Marin – You raise a few specific points.

    Firstly, CAP subsidies are currently de-linked from green objectives, so contrary to your assertion it would be possible to both cut the overall budget and deliver greater environmental benefits.

    Secondly, the savings from reforming EU regional policy would be realised by not spending it in wealthier member states any longer (GDP per capita of 90% or above the EU average). Most EU member states (23 out of 27) would benefit from it – the main losers would be Spain, Italy and Greece. As the crisis has shown, these countries are in need of fundamental structural economic reform which EU regional spending is unable to deliver – indeed there is evidence that they may have made the crisis in these countries worse, for example by fuelling the Spanish construction bubble.

    Finally, your point about the Lib Dems being a “pro-EU party” – personally, I think that those who are in favour of continued membership need to make the case more vociferously than ever because the status quo is politically unsustainable in terms of UK public opinion.

    @ Rob Heale – While the objectives of the WTD may be laudable, its implementation has caused to end of problems, above all in the NHS which struggles to provide junior doctors with adequate training, with a deleterious impact on patient care.

    Vince Cable himself wrote that: “The directive incorporates the idea that is most clearly expressed in the French 35-hour week: that work should be compulsorily restricted and shared out, whether or not it suits the needs of individual workers or firms. Not only is this dreadful economics, it is also deeply illiberal.”

  • Alex Macfie 14th Aug '12 - 9:33am

    @Liberal Eye: “…candidates for the European parliament being ordered not to talk about EU issues…” Are they really? If so then that is a serious mistake. The European Parliament is the only democratic arm of the EU; it is also an institution in which our representatives are free to advance the undiluted Liberal Democrat agenda. The only way we have any chance in the next European Parliamentary election is by selling the achievements of our MEPs, both in helping create a liberal vision of Europe, and in keeping the bar-stewards (the Council and Commission) honest. [Incidentally, this is not Euroscepticism: after all we don’t think that being pro-UK means being uncritically supportive of everything the UK civil service does; it shoudl be the same in the debate on EU issues.] Lib Dem MEPs, and the ALDE group in general, are among the strongest supporters of CAP reform; we should be selling this to the electorate come 2014. However, I’m not sure what makes you think that member states can be trusted with agricultural policy any more than the EU. It is principally member states that are holding back CAP reform, as they are holding back reform in many other areas of EU policy, so I suspect that agricultural policies in the hands of national governments would be just as beholden to large-scale farmers as the CAP.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Aug '12 - 5:31pm

    @LiberalEye: I thought you meant more recently; I agree that the 2009 Euro campaign was rubbish, and if our election literature for 2014 is anything like that, then I shall be conveniently unavailable for campaigning. Saving post offices has nothing to do with the European Parliament. Our Euro election campaign needs to focus on what our MEPs have done in the European Parliament; there need to be two parts: (i) why the European Parliament matters, and (ii) why people should vote Lib Dem for the EP.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Aug '12 - 12:59pm

    Rob Heale

    Is it really the case that both Parties agree on the need to amend the Working Time Directive? I certainly hope not! I am a strong supporter of the Working Time Directive – which protects employees in terms of working hours, rest breaks and meal breaks etc.

    Agreed. Why is LibDem Voice full of comments from trendy youngsters who seem to have swallowed whole the “answer to everything is extreme free markets” fashion, and are capable of little more than repeating parrot fashion the propaganda lines for this sort of thing from their elders and if not betters at least people who said this sort of thing when there was some freshness in it? Reminds me of the time when trendy youngsters repeated parrot fashion the socialist lines passed on to them by their elders and betters, at just the time socialism was proving disastrous wherever and whenever implemented. But always the answer from the young trendies is that the only problem is that it has not been implemented in an extreme enough form.

    I wouldn’t even entirely reject the CAP. It dates from a time when there were people in Europe who really did face starvation. Sorry, I think there actually is very good grounds for making sure we do keep good agriculture going close to us, rather than just suppose the rest of the world will carry on supplying us with food. Try looking at the crop failures that are happening around the world in various places now. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong in principle in having a subsidy which keeps agriculture in existence even if a bit expensive, when allowing it to disappear means we are stuck if we need to reinvent it because the suppliers we’ve come to rely on won’t supply our needs any more. I’ve always felt we in this country should try looking to see if there were ways we could get more out of the CAP, can we get it to subsidise a big increase in agricultural jobs? I’m not saying in this I support the CAP in its current form, but I am saying I reject the simplistic free market attack on it.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • David Langshaw
    Just to add to the Singapore imagery, it's worth remembering that the Japanese advanced all the way down the Malayan peninsula on bicycles....
  • Geoff Reid
    In the midst of the alarms and excursions of an election campaign - and the necessary simplifications - it is very refreshing to be reminded of the ground on wh...
  • Bill Le Breton
    Fantastic piece. Thank you....
  • Neil Hickman
    Sadly, Martin, I fear you’re right. Labour apparatchiks would far rather a monopoly Labour government than one dependent on the Lib Dem’s (and kept honest ...
  • Martin Gray
    If Labour - as predicted win by a landslide I can't see a change in the voting system anytime soon. PCC and local elections have a poor turnout - no amount of a...