The Westminster village might still be in post-holiday slumber mode, but a significant political event is due to take place only in a couple of weeks – David Cameron’s long awaited, ‘tantric’ speech on Europe. While the exact details remain unclear, Cameron could well argue that the UK’s terms of EU membership require revision, and that this should include the repatriation of some powers, after which the new package will be put to a referendum. So how should the Liberal Democrats respond?
It could be argued that there has already been a pre-emptive response from Nick Clegg, who in his own recent EU speech described the unilateral repatriation of powers as “a false promise wrapped in a Union Jack”. Instead, he argued for pragmatic EU co-operation focusing on three things in particular: a tough budget settlement, defending and deepening the single market, and maintaining co-operation in the area of crime and policing.
Meritorious as these are – even if there is a lively debate to be had on what institutional form the latter should take – they do not add up to a holistic long-term vision of Britain’s place in an evolving Europe. For example, given the current squeeze on public finances, the coalition is right to push for a freeze in EU expenditure, but this comes across as a time-specific damage limitation exercise without a broader vision for slimming down and rationalising the budget. Likewise, Clegg said he supports reforming and refocusing the EU, but has offered few concrete details in this and other recent public pronouncements.
A new model of UK-EU relations is not only desirable but inevitable given that closer economic and political integration in the eurozone will render the status-quo null and void. As such, renegotiation is less of a threat to the UK’s EU membership and more of an opportunity to save it by placing it on a more democratically legitimate footing. Polls frequently show that such an option attracts a majority of public support when included alongside the binary ‘in/out’ question. Last year, detailed polling found a majority of UK public opinion backed such a move, including Lib Dem voters.
The danger for the party is that it engages in the debate in too vague terms, thereby risking being left flat-footed when rivals reveal specific proposals. For example, the Fresh Start group of Conservative MPs has been busy preparing a comprehensive and detailed analysis of each key area of EU policy, alongside their suggestions for reform. If Lib Dems do not agree with their vision, they should at least be able to present a counter-proposal.
A good place to look for inspiration would be Nick Clegg’s chapter in the Orange Book, written when he was still an MEP in 2004, containing some sensible yet innovative ideas for EU reform. Among other things, he claimed that it was democratically desirable for the flow of competencies to be a two-way street, arguing that “A liberal approach to the allocation of responsibilities to the EU should be founded on a rigorous application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality… Liberal Democrats should push for the reallocation of certain existing powers – including much of agricultural, regional and social policy”. In convincing terms, he made the case for a more flexible EU, more responsive to the needs of member states and citizens.
It is this critical yet constructive approach towards the EU which has been lacking in recent Lib Dem public statements on Europe, indeed, with some degree of irony, it could be argued that the party’s thinking on the issue risks coming across as conservative, while the Tories push ahead with a transformative agenda. It’s true that the debate about Europe in this country too often is framed in terms of British exceptionalism, and the UK has a bit of an image problem on the continent, seen as “jumping from veto to veto.” But Britain isn't alone in facing existential choices in Europe. If the party backs reform but views ‘unilateral’ repatriation as unacceptable, it should set out a credible new institutional framework for all 27 member states and look for allies in Europe. One such ally could be the Dutch liberal VVD party, whose leader, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, recently argued that the Netherlands would welcome a debate over whether Europe is involved in too many areas which could be done at the national level.
Either way, as the debate in the UK and Europe intensifies, the party needs to be in a position to communicate to voters what its long term vision for Britain’s future in Europe is.