Watching the Conservative Party once again beat itself up over Europe feels satisfying to many Liberal Democrat observers. The resumption of civil war seems to prove how cosmetic Cameron’s detoxification of his party was. However, those Conservative rebels on this week’s motion to have an EU referendum seem to have placed themselves on the right side on public opinion and we mustn’t allow ourselves to be complacent about that fact.
The 2015 election is going to be challenging for us as a party. We have, no doubt, lost a lot of left-wing and ‘none-of-the-above’ voters. Success at the next election can only be achieved by showing that we can be trusted with government. Our current European policy does not achieve this aim.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto of 2010 said:
The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.
This policy seems illogical to me. Why should a treaty change trigger an in/out referendum rather than a plebiscite on the treaty itself? If voters don’t like the particular treaty change, but don’t want to leave the EU altogether how do we expect them to vote? This smacks of a policy that we wouldn’t be able to stick to if we did have a majority Lib Dem government and it should go.
Nick Clegg said in the TV debates that he would vote in favour of remaining in the EU. But how can he say that without knowing what the actual treaty on the table would be? It’s sloppy policy like this that helps label us as ‘fanatical pro-Europeans’. This label is our biggest enemy. It is not popular and it is not actually what we believe.
The 2010 manifesto also said:
But just because Europe is essential, that doesn’t mean the European Union is perfect. We will continue to campaign for improved accountability, efficiency and effectiveness.
This is key to our credibility on European policy. EU institutions are far from a liberal utopia, so we shouldn’t be seen to support them slavishly. There is much we need to reform, and urgently. The British people want to change our relationship with Europe and Liberal Democrats have good proposals for reform. The most important issue facing Britain in Europe today is not whether we’re in or out, I think most people accept we should be in. Nor is it whether we join the Euro, that’s probably off the table for quite some time. Our first preoccupation should be reform of the EU to make it people-friendly in terms of its institutions and growth and jobs-friendly in terms of its policies. That has to be a vote-winner.
So come the next election, I would like to see an end to illogical and inconsistent populism. And end to obsession with the Euro. Our number one priority aim for the EU has to be accountability and economic growth. The rest is a distraction.