Thursday, 28 February 2008

The Lib Dems and the Eu...

Over on the highly-focussed world that is, it isn't long into each day before one of the regular correspondents vents his spleen over Europe and especially the Liberal Democrat position on Europe. When reminded that a) he's as far removed from a Lib Dem supporter as it's possible to be and b) that no one cares about Europe, he tends to become ever more cantankerous and spews various epithets in the style of a verbal flamethrower.

The fact remains that the Lib Dem position on the EU and the Lisbon Treaty has caused some consternation, primarily, it has to be said, among opposition activists. This culminated in Ed Davey being ordered out of the chamber of the House of Commons and being followed by the entire Lib Dem Parliamentary Party.

Ed's crime was to ask the Deputy Speaker to consider a Lib Dem amendment calling for a simple vote on continuing Britain's membership of the EU. When this was refused, Ed got a little unparliamentary and was suspended from the sitting.

Let's be clear - the Lib Dem position has changed since 2005 when the manifesto called for a referendum on any future Treaty. This position was similar to that of both Labour and Conservative parties at the time. The world has moved 2008, even the Conservatives are not entirely committed to a referendum - they would have one now if they could but their 198 MPs aren't going to get their way and of course David Cameron knows it. Cameron has also failed to give an unequivocal commitment to a referendum on Lisbon in 2009 or 2010 reasoning (quite correctly) that the Treaty will either be in effect or will have fallen due to opposition elsewhere.

If Cameron is being realistic, what of Nick Clegg ? I have to say, as a Lib Dem member and supporter, I struggle with the policy currently on offer which appears to be to offer a referendum based simply on the question of whether Britain remains in the EU. I find this disappointing and transparent. There is of course a vocal but, I suspect, very small minority who want us out of the EU completely. There is also, I suppose, a small minority who aspire to full political and economic union within Europe, the creation of a United States of Europe and common usage of the Euro.

The significant majority of British opinion, of course, favours neither option and there are huge shades of grey. Most wish to preserve the pound and have no interest in greater political union though do recognise the benefits of the single market though concern about the full implications of the free movement of capital AND labour within the EU are growing with the influx of economic migration from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and other places.

The perception within British opinion is that the EU has gone too far and that some powers need to be repatriated back to national Parliaments. For all its faults, the nation-state is still regarded more fondly than the supra-national institution. There is a growing sense that aspects of the EU are or at risk of becoming corrupt and that those working within the EU (both politicians and civil servants) are as interested in personal accumulation of wealth as in doing "good things" for the citizens of the EU.

For Nick Clegg, a "yes" vote might be easy but for me and, I supect, many others, the implication of a "yes" vote would not only be to give a green light to the current EU institution with all its faults but also to give the same green light to future deeper political and economic integration.

My view, for some time, has been that while membership of the EU has been and remains in Britain's national interest, the institution that the EU has become is in need of root-and-branch reform. The fear is that while Britain masy push for this, other countries may be more relaxed about the current state of affairs and would be less amenable to a radical overhaul.

Hindsight tells me we should have had referenda on both the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty and Conservatives, who breate the Lib Dems, would do well to remember that their party has consistently ignored calls for referenda on a range of issues including Scottish and Welsh devolution when pro-devolution candidates clearly represented the majority of Scottish and Welsh opinion. Much of what Cameron and the Conservatives say now is predicated on political opportunism and it's interesting to note that Cameron is far more vague about offering refrenda in the event of a Conservative Government than he is while in opposition.

The one aspect of Clegg and Davey's display has been to give the Lib Dems a sharper edge which has been long needed. This was promised by Clegg in the leadership campaign and while it has been ridiculed by some Tory activists, we can and should ignore their opinions because they aren't going to have anything nice to say anyway.

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