We should be proud of our approach to the EU

For many Liberal Democrats like us, rejoining the European Union is an article of faith and a top political priority.  Helen and her family were advocates of European integration in the 1950s; William joined the Liberal Party when Jo Grimond was arguing for joining the EEC, Harold Macmillan was struggling to persuade his party, and Gaitskell was moving to oppose the idea.

We’re now back at a similar juncture: outside, increasingly aware of the costs of exclusion, this time with Labour edging awkwardly towards a half-commitment to closer relations, the Conservatives divided between realists wanting to re-establish a degree of mutual trust and collaboration and a hysterical anti-European right wing.  We are the only party that has set out a road map for moving back towards the EU, in stages, including rejoining the Single Market, with the intention in time of rejoining the EU.

Many Liberal Democrats are unhappy that we have not come out for a faster path to rejoining than the stage-by-stage road map set out by the working group in last year’s policy paper.  The contrast between that strategic path, from re-establishment of mutual trust to association to eventual membership, and Starmer’s effort ‘to make Brexit work better’ without joining either the customs union or the single market, is clear enough.  But we need to recognise, as we re-assert that we are committed to moving back towards the closest possible relationship with our European neighbours, that the EU is itself changing rapidly, and that the UK cannot fully rejoin until public opinion has accepted the full consequences of doing so.

The Ukraine conflict and the need to respond both to China’s technological and industrial challenge and the USA’s commitment to an industrial strategy have shifted priorities within the EU.  After years of prevarication, further enlargement is now firmly on the agenda: to include Ukraine first and foremost, but also Moldova and the Western Balkan states.  That will necessitate major increases in shared funding, above all to pay for Ukrainian reconstruction.  It will also require painful changes in the way over 30 diverse states agree decisions, in a context in which Hungary and Poland have already shown the difficulties that recalcitrant governments can create for collective policy-making.

Renegotiation with the UK is not close to the top of the EU’s current agenda.  Responses to Starmer’s claim that he will ‘renegotiate’ Lord Frost’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement have included pointed reminders that the commitment to ‘review’ the agreement in 2025 is not the same as a wider negotiation.  Boris Johnson, and the insults and lies of the right-wing press, have left many in Brussels and national capitals weary about accommodating the arrogant Brits, and unwilling to allow London to ‘cherrypick’ aspects that it likes without accepting balancing obligations.

The UK’s position within the EU before the referendum was in many ways exceptional.  We were a full member, but without accepting the abolition of border controls, or the Euro single currency.  We had a complex rebate arrangement limiting our net contribution to the EU budget.  Such concessions may not be available in future negotiations for full membership. And no negotiation will be successful until we have won the battle for domestic opinion, against an unreconciled Conservative Party and hostile right-wing media.

Opinion polls now show a clear, but not overwhelming, majority agreeing that Brexit was a mistake, and that rejoining is in principle desirable.  But the details of negotiation would bring out unavoidable obligations that the uninvolved public will find harder to accept.  Public opinion polls show majority support for higher spending, but not for higher taxes except on the richest.  The Brexit campaign hit on how much we were paying, without admitting that much went to pay for common services and more for raising the living standards of the former Socialist states.  The scale of support for Ukrainian reconstruction will require a hard sell; free movement will be difficult, a common currency perhaps a bridge too far.

Our party’s policy therefore sets out a path for moving gradually, carrying our voters with us and rebuilding the mutual trust that Johnson, Farage and others destroyed.  Alignment of regulations, closer cooperation on foreign and defence policy, achievement of further issue-specific agreements will lead us towards association, and back towards membership within a large and more diverse EU.  Labour politicians don’t dare to spell out such a strategy; Conservatives are deeply divided about any such moves forward.  We are the pro-European party.  We should be proud of our position, both practical and ambitious, however frustrated we are by all the difficulties of achieving our long-term goal.

* Helen Wallace was a member of the EU policy working group. She led the European Programme at Chatham House, was director of the Sussex European Institute and later head of the Robert Schumann Centre at the European University Institute in Florence. Lord William Wallace is the Liberal Democrat Lords spokesman on the Cabinet Office.

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  • Helen and William Wallace are well qualified to spell out the arguments for current party policy. However if we are proud of it we have to find better ways of saying so. The Greens and a Rejoin party think they can outflank us without facing up to some of the issues outlined here. We should remind people that we are the long- term consistently pro-European party and unashamedly so in a way that connects broadly with the pro-European section of the people who vote. We should not forget that voting was a one off action for many of those who voted leave in Cameron’s referendum. That in itself distorts attempts to measure public opinion in Post-brexit Britain.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Sep '23 - 2:49pm

    “We are the pro-European party.”

    Europe includes such countries as Belarus, Moldova, and the parts of Russia where most of the population live. So are you pro them too?

    It may seem like a quibble but it’s annoying to some of us that a geographical term, Europe, and which includes the UK, Switzerland, Norway, Monaco etc is treated synonymously as a political term which is properly the European Union. The implication is that those who do not wish to be EU members are somehow anti-European. We aren’t.

    Some Canadians may wish to join the USA but most don’t. Does this mean that they can be described as either Pro or Anti -American?

  • jedibeeftrix 22nd Sep '23 - 3:10pm

    “Opinion polls now show a clear, but not overwhelming, majority agreeing that Brexit was a mistake, and that rejoining is in principle desirable.”

    Let’s dwell for a moment on that delicious little caveat at the end of the quote; “in principle”.
    What does opinion polling tell us about support for rejoin when it is preconditioned with adoption of the EU? I believe support then drops to ~25% of respondents, and drops still further when Schenghen is added into the pickle.

    “We should be proud of our position, both practical and ambitious, however frustrated we are by all the difficulties of achieving our long-term goal.”

    Which is an entirely honorable position to hold, but its usefulness is best determined by answering the question: Are ‘we’ a political party seeking to win power in a majoritarian electoral system, or a pressure group seeking to swing public opinion behind currently unelectable positions?

  • Sorry but I have zero interest in spending time as an activist for a party if it and especially its leader can’t make a positive case for rejoining the CU, SM and ultimately the EU itself. May as well go help the Green party

  • william wallace 22nd Sep '23 - 3:40pm

    Peter Martin: it’s not just a quibble. The Boris Johnson ’tilt to the Indo-Pacific’, the over-hyping of post-Brexit trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, and the close ties between the Brexit-right and the US Republicans all indicated that Brexiters imagined that Britain was moving away from Europe as a whole, to work with our Anglo-Saxon cousins and assert that we were a ‘global’ power. The Ukraine conflict has reminded us that we’re still European.

  • Sandy Smith 22nd Sep '23 - 5:48pm

    The Liberal Democrat position does not look so strong in Scotland where the SNP wants Scotland to join the EU at the earliest opportunity and 62% voted against leaving the EU at the referendum. Trying to tell the people of Scotland that they can only rejoin the EU once a majority of the people of England can be persuaded, is not likely to be a particularly strong vote winner.

  • Peter Wrigley 22nd Sep '23 - 6:44pm

    I agree with both the Wallaces and Geoff Reed. Now is not the time to campaign gung-ho for rejoining: the electorate simply isn’t ready and, as jedibeeftrix points out, it will be even less ready when people realise it will involve joining the Euro and the Shengen Agreement (hurray for both.) But we should make it clear our enthusiasm for the EU, a great and civilising adventure, ( and for some a step n the way to World government) from which we deeply regret have (temporarily?) excluded ourselves, and proudly campaign for our “step by step” programme for closer relations.

  • I’ve had the very greatest respect for William Wallace ever since I first met him over sixty years ago, but sadly I can’t agree with his conclusions, and it’s not just on a matter of principle.

    Pragmatically, the polls are showing a steady and continuing move in popular opinion against Brexit. A growing number are now coming to a position that Brexit was a huge and costly mistake. Statista (details are online) has shown this growing shift ever since 2020.

    Statista Research Department’s latest online polling was published on 15 September. :

    “As of August 2023, 56 percent of people in Great Britain thought that it was wrong to leave the European Union, compared with 32 percent who thought it was the right decision. During this time period, the share of people who regret Brexit has been slightly higher than those who support it, except for some polls in Spring 2021, which showed higher levels of support for Brexit. The share of people who don’t know whether Brexit was the right or wrong decision has generally been stable and usually ranged between 11 and 14 percent”.

    There is a danger for Sir Ed Davey of ‘missing the bus’ with a policy of ‘don’t scare the horses’ given the growing trend of disillusionment with Brexit. Sandy Smith is correct about Scotland, but the Statista poll trend applies to England.

  • The problem is that the support is for joining the EU with the same deal before. I don’t think it will be anywhere near as high if we can’t get the rebate and have to join the Euro.

    Also the EU have agency in this debate. They won’t want us to rejoin unless they are 100% sure that we won’t leave again.

    It would not surprise me if the EU didn’t demand a referendum with a super majority requirement.

  • Helen and William write Ukraine’s reconstruction will …”require painful changes in the way over 30 diverse states agree decisions, in a context in which Hungary and Poland have already shown the difficulties that recalcitrant governments can create for collective policy-making”.
    Ukraine is among the poorest of potential EU members and its reconstruction and accession to the EU will quite likely absorb a large part of the EU’s available Common agricultural policy funds as well as the Lion’s share of the regional development and social fund. That would mean less funding available for countries like Hungary or Poland even with major increases in shared funding.
    The idea that the UK could rejoin the EU with a rebate arrangement (or other opt outs) seems fanciful in these circumstances. I would like to see the party adopt a position of rejoining EFTA as some stage as proposed by Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael sets out a route map back to the EU

  • Duncan Greenland 23rd Sep '23 - 9:48am

    A wise,thoughtful and helpful article ! Enthusiasm within the bounds of the politically feasible .

  • Christian Davis 23rd Sep '23 - 1:14pm

    We Lib Dem’s seem invisible to the electorate at the moment. The one policy that can set us apart is rejoining the EU. We should declare Brexit a failure and condemn the Cons and Lab as the anti growth high tax coalition.

  • As a member of the Liberal Democrats I read all the contributions with interest. I do not understand any more clearly how we are intending to present a policy on Europe to the electorate at the coming election.
    My own approach is that I have long supported the idea of closer integration of Europe. And I do recognise that there are countries outside the EU which are in fact part of Europe.
    I remember the time when the Liberal Party supported joining the Eurozone. Of course when we were not a member of the EU the economic outlook seemed grim.
    It seems grim now. We need to consider things like how we would propose to get popular agreement to make major changes in the way our country is run.
    And please let us hear less of things like how the EU would react to any proposals we put forward. Informed public opinion needs information. Things will change if there is a real campaign. That is what campaigns are for.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Sep '23 - 4:16pm

    @ William Wallace,

    “The Ukraine conflict has reminded us that we’re still European.”

    Of course we are and always were – long before the EU or the EEC were ever thought of. So is the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. And Ukraine for that matter. They’ve never been members of the EU though.

    Is it too much to ask you to use the term EU when you mean the EU and Europe when you mean Europe?

  • Peter Martin 23rd Sep '23 - 4:42pm

    “We should be proud of our approach to the EU”

    Many in the EU might very well disagree for the reason that most UK Remainers, including most Lib Dems, have only been half hearted in their approach to the EU. There has been little or no support for using the euro, little or no support for Schengen, little or no support for the principle of “ever closer union” or tighter integration .

    The EU is stuck in a betwixt and between state. It neither a single country nor a loose confederation of trading states. This cannot continue indefinitely.

    Timothy Lee explained some seven years ago why tighter integration is necessary for the EU. He seemed relatively optimistic at the time that the EU could do this better without the burden of having to fit the UK into its plans. He wrote:

    “The British vote underscores the fact that European leaders have two choices: They can have an orderly process toward deeper integration, or they can risk that a future recession will trigger a disorderly economic collapse of the entire EU structure”

    That next recession isn’t too far off.


  • Leekliberal 23rd Sep '23 - 5:41pm

    Alistair and David Raw are so right on the dangers of our leadership missing the bus about the people’s changing views about our relationship with the EU. Sir Ed’s silence on an issue which so recently defined is hugely demotivating and as an activist since 1981 l find the principalled position of the Greens in this issue increasingly attractive,

  • We should be explicitly pro rejoining the EU as soon as possible.

    But we need to be honest about what this means, it means joining Schengen, joining the EU, no more rebate etc.

    There is no point building a pro re-join majority if the majority is based on a false premise that we can have what we want before. That majority will be built on sand and will disappear as soon as reality hits home.

  • According to BBC News, I notice my old friend Michael Steed’s chum, Sir John Curtice, has spelt out a few home truths to the Lib Dem Conference today :

    “The Liberal Democrats are “losing votes to Labour” because of their reluctance to talk about Brexit, polling guru Sir John Curtice has said. Professor Curtice explained why the Lib Dems were struggling in the opinion polls to a room packed with party activists. He said they had lost ground to Labour among voters who would like to rejoin the European Union.

    Ahead of the Lib Dem conference, leader Sir Ed Davey said rejoining the EU was currently “off the table”.

    Puts one in mind of a comment by David Lloyd George a century ago about Sir John Simon, “He has sat on the fence so long the iron has entered into his soul”.

  • Jenny Barnes 23rd Sep '23 - 10:09pm

    “I fail to see a realistic alternative to suffering a further referendum on the EU”
    No. Let’s not.

  • Colin Bloodworth 24th Sep '23 - 1:47am

    There seems to be a consensus that we need to convey our commitment to rejoining Europe with a louder voice. Let the voting public know our position is 100% pro-Europe. Yes, lose a few faint hearts and those still dreaming of ‘Britannia rules the waves’ but in return win the support of those who are forward-looking and will join a party that shows commitment and leadership that reaffirms our commitment. No more being nice to dissenters or sitting on the same fence as the confused Labour party or the Tories, many of whom were (and secretly still are) pro-Europe but were forced to follow Boris, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, on his sinking ship to the bottom of the ocean.

  • David Symonds 25th Sep '23 - 11:42am

    The article is excellent though i think it needs to be borne in mind that the EU does need to be reformed. Many people in Britain (even those who voted Remain) do have concerns that the EU has evolved into a near superstate rather than being one of sovereign independent states working together like NATO and the EU. The talk of EU armies and defence etc are good but need to be thought out and we need to avoid any particular country becoming dominant over the rest. The EU is pretty large but the most important thing is the trade and co-operation. By being back inside we may be able to reform the institutions and work closely but the needs of some countries may be different to others. “Ever closer union” is great but the EU needs to be careful to carry people with it at every stage.

  • @ David Symonds re reforming the EU.

    The trouble is our best opportunity was the David Cameron reforms that would have been put into effect if the UK had remained. Whilst the reforms were dismissed by many in the Leave camp as being insignificant, they failed to grasp the significance of the reforms and the long term change in the balance of power in the EU, potentially giving the UK a much bigger influence – assuming UK politicians were up to the task which was and still is highly questionable.

    I suspect if the UK were to rejoin, without some major unforeseen change, it will be many decades before the UK is in a position within the EU to have its reform ideas listened to.

  • After attending the National Rejoin March in London last Saturday, I was struck by the complete absence of any visible Lib Dem support for the event yet there were a lot of obviously Green supporters and also, a speaker from the Green party at the rally in Parliament Square.

    As a life-long member of the Liberal Democrats both nationally and locally, this left me thinking – am I now backing the wrong party?

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