Tuesday, 8 October 2013


Donald Macintyre begins his political commentary in today's Independent: "In a climate in which Nigel Farage has become the man to beat in next year’s European elections, Nick Clegg is doing something rather daring, and making the most strongly pro-European speech by any party leader since 2010. His 'call to arms' in a letter urging British businesses and other institutions to proclaim the benefits of EU membership is a timely use of his platform as Deputy Prime Minister."

He goes on to emphasise Nick's aligning himself with both Tony Blair (who would probably have pushed his government more EU-wards if it had not been for Gordon Brown's presence) and Margaret Thatcher who, while rejecting the concept of a European superstate in her Bruges speech, concluded that “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”

But Nick makes a case for more than just economic advantage. If it was only this, then there would be little to differentiate ourselves from Cameron and Miliband. Cameron and his friends in the city would like to see the UK opt out of social legislation and worker protection, while Labour would not seek to reverse any move along these lines judging by their resistance to anti-ageism and similar directives when they were in power, but otherwise they see the advantages of being inside a free trade area. Clegg goes further.

He cites our increased influence as a result of EU membership in trade deals, the fight against cross-border crime and the environment. I would add: the protection of democracy. I believe that Greece is an example of this. In pre-EU days, Greece suffered from political instability interrupted by a reactionary dictatorship (the RĂ©gime of the Colonels). NATO, which is credited with keeping the peace in Europe after the Second World War, did not prevent the latter; indeed, it may covertly have encouraged it. Contrast more recent history, when near post-war austerity would probably have seen a neo-Nazi party take advantage to seize power, were it not for the support of the EU. One can add Spain and Portugal, for a long time strangers to democracy, now with stable elected legislatures.

Liberal Democrats have always sought to reform the EU. Now that the European Parliament has been given increased powers of scrutiny, our MEPs have actually been able to achieve some improvements and (along with like-minded MEPs in the powerful Liberal & Democratic group) blocked some regressive measures. We have consistently argued for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which Mrs Thatcher short-sightedly signed up to. The pressure on the CFP has finally told, as Nick made clear in his speech.

I disagree with Nick on one point: we are overdue an unconditional in-out referendum, which would settle our membership for a generation, as originally proposed by Ming Campbell. I know there was small print in our manifesto which promised a referendum only if there were proposed changes in our relationship with the EU, but we gave the impression in the campaign that in government we would provide a referendum regardless. We could actually have had an EU referendum instead of that pointless and damaging vote on a change to the electoral system which was not supported by any party, even Labour from whence it arose. The longer the referendum is put off, the more likely it is that we will have a perverse result when it is finally held.

No comments: