Sunday, October 7, 2012

Some thoughts for Europe

The European Union is a subject which excites politicians and commentators more than it does voters. While the Conservative party regularly has civil wars on the issue, and UKIP enjoys growing support, I have found the issue is very rarely raised on the doorstep, and it is a fact that turnout at European elections is often very low and results depend on national factors rather than European policy.

However this is not to say that the topic is anything but important. The EU’s fortunes are a vital part of our nation’s fate – our biggest trading partner and creator of many of our laws. Depending on your point of view, the EU is an essential trading block in a growing inter-dependent world or a German plot to subsume Britain into a European superstate.

There are things on which Europhiles and Eurosceptics agree. The EU is vast, inefficiently administered and over-bureaucratic. Having a parliament building in Strasbourg, with regular movement of staff and resources, is an unnecessary waste and expense. The EU is in dire need of cost-cutting reform. And, in my view, this is how we should be using British muscle – in mobilising those of like minds throughout the EU to this point of view.

When I put this view, I am often told, usually by sceptics, that there is no point. The EU will never change – it is on a non-stop course to full political integration because that is what the Europeans want, and are not interested in alternate views.

They are partly correct in that British views are often disregarded – but that could be due to the fact that successive governments have constantly taken a distant or cooling approach to the EU. We always go along, never take the first step. We opt out of things, maybe even veto or delay, but generally drift along with an air of disinterest. Have you heard of the UK government taking an act of initiative within EU corridors?

Sharon Bowles, Lib Dem MEP, and doing an excellent job as Chair of the Economic and Monetary Committee, once said that others had sought to remove her from this position – not because of her views or talents – but simply because she was British. Our businessmen in Europe may find a similar problem – the general assumption that Britain is a lame duck which will one day go off into isolation. Equally a company thinking of moving to the UK (and creating jobs!) has to have this prospect at the back of their mind. This is something David Cameron and the Tory media never think of – how their hostility to the EU has a knock-on effect on our influence.

So should we leave the EU? As I said, the EU is far from perfect – would our withdrawal improve it? Would our retreat from our major trading partners during a recession help our own economy? Are world powers more likely to invest in the UK if we have detached ourselves from this trading bloc? Could the UK, on its own, profit in a world of growing economies such as NAFTA and the BRIC nations? Is the EU really a German-led plot to succeed where the Wehrmacht failed and that all the other nations are conspirators along for the journey? If the EU is so evil, why is there a queue of nations wanting to join and, apart from the UK, barely a whisper from anyone about leaving?

Having said that, I would favour an in-out referendum as argued in an earlier entry. Our progress and contribution in the European project is being held back by the internal threat posed to our economic security from the Eurosceptics – so once the referendum is won (which I believe it can be) the anti-EUs will be neutralised and then we can all campaign for the type of EU we want to see.

Another expression we often hear – particularly in Conservative circles – is ‘repatriation of powers’. This is the view that the EU have taken away many powers that national states used to exert and that the state should have them back. This is a good phrase but of course deliberately vague. There have been cases, for example, where European laws have trumped UK ones – for example, the EU have often forced workers’ rights onto reluctant UK governments of both colours. It was not a UK government who granted measures of flexible working or paternity leave. By definition, ‘repatriation of powers’ is a backward step, when we should be looking forwards.

The biggest issue in Europe today, both in and out of the EU, is the Euro crisis. Again the UK, a major player on the continent, and with one of the world’s biggest economic centres of power and expertise in the City, could make a contribution to the issue. It is in our interests, after all, for a stable and prosperous Euro. However, the government have put us on the outside of the debate, with a glass on the wall listening to what others are discussing. I was particularly alarmed by David Cameron’s suggestion of the EU having two budgets – one for the 17 countries in the Eurozone and one of the 10 outside, which would move the EU into internal conflict and possibly permanent separation – at a time when all 27 should be drawing together.

We need the UK to engage positively with our EU partners, to throw our weight into solving the Euro crisis, to continue to co-operate and work together on cross-border problems such as the environment, terrorism, illegal immigration and organised crime. And to fight for the type of European Union we want to see – a streamlined organisation developing a completely free trade zone for mutual economic security and prosperity.

This is a clear issue on which we in the Liberal Democrats disagree with our national coalition partners. Where they stand on the cliffs of Dover and stick two fingers up in a south east direction, we instead stretch out our right arm to grab a hand. Where the Tories say ‘give us back our powers’, we say ‘let us all be powerful together’.

We are the most pro-European major political party – I think that is a fact we should trumpet out loud. We will be called traitors and quislings by the media, but I have found that people generally accept the importance of the European Union and the need for us to be involved – especially during difficult economic times. In terms of businesses, large and small, and jobs, continued and growing interdependence is vital.

It will not be long before we are campaigning for the 2014 European parliament elections. At the last elections in 2009, UKIP did well, mainly because the vote took place during the expenses scandal when perceptions of the three parties were very low. This time, unless there is another scandal, we should see the established parties regain some ground.

The Labour party will continue to campaign on their policy of having no policies. The Conservatives will try to be pro- and anti-European at the same time. UKIP will be, well, UKIP.

I hope the Liberal Democrats fly the flag high for Europe. Fight the elections on European issues. And continue to send a growing and talented band of MEPs to fight for our country’s interests. After all, someone has to!!

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