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Friday, April 09, 2004

European sceptics?

I know that there is a bit of controversy within the party about this pronouncement by the Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable, but I welcome the line he is taking. Patrick Wintour in the Guardian reports that "Liberal Democrats are to adopt a far more sceptical stance on Europe in next month's European election campaign, calling for an end to the euro stability pact, repatriation of social policy to nation states and a commitment to subsidiarity in the draft European Union constitution." I prefer to think of it as being a critical friend.

The Liberal Democrats have always been pro-European but the fact that we have also called for European institutions to be reformed and have not supported every policy that emanates from Brussels has tended to get lost in the general friendly fuzziness that we project on this issue. That is one reason why we have tended to under-perform at European Elections. At least if we have a more hard-edged manifesto this time, along the lines trailed by Vince Cable, people might better appreciate our realistic approach, if they think about Europe at all when they vote of course.

I'm glad to see Vince Cable take a more sceptical line and glad to see your comments as well.

Had an interesting question from a new party member last year: "Having recently joined the Liberal Democrat party I have to admit I have issues with the party line on Europe. How can the country be looking to integrate further when the EU is undemocratic and corrupt? Half the UK rebate is spent on subsidising EU farmers which allows surplusses to be dumped on Less Economically Developed Countries crippling local economies and causing more unemployment. I therefore feel the EU is unethical and in its current form should be avoided. Unless there is serious change within this structure I do not feel the UK should submit more power and lose more sovereingty"

To which I replied: "Mmm. Good Question."

The EU is a subject where two liberal, democratic themes can come into conflict - internationalism and decentralisation. On the internationalist side, don't underestimate the importance that we haven't had a war in Western Europe for more than 50 years. If you went back to the late 1930s, when democracy in Europe was confined to about eleven countries - the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland , Europe is incredibly more democratic (and much more prosperous) than we were back then.

But you are right, the EU system is lacking effective democracy and has too much corruption. Lib Dems are rightly amongst those who want more democracy - but giving a stronger democratic mandate to a body tends to give it a bigger appetite for power. To be democratic , you have to be able to vote an unpopular administration out of power - but to do that, do you need an elected EU leader , similar to a US president? Most people wouldn't be comfortable with that yet.

As for the decentralising, I believe that power should be devolved down to counties and districts, Give more real power to local communities which I think is the case in much of Scandinavia and the US, for example. Essex should leave the Eastern Region and be a region in its own right. With the accession of a whole load more countries - Estonia , Poland etc., the EU is going to have to change - hopefully with reforms in the right direction. I think the Lib Dems nationally need to change their attitude a little - to acknowledge more that you can have misgivings about Europe without being some kind of nutty right-winger.

Chris Black 10 April 2004
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