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Saturday, March 08, 2008

More on Europe

Martin Kettle has a thoughtful and insightful piece in the Guardian this morning that is worth quoting. Talking about the three line whip ordering Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain on the vote to decide whether there should be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, he says that Nick Clegg had no choice. The Liberal Democrat leader was between a rock and a hard place:

'No party can ever be satisfied with a shambles. Yet while acknowledging the damage, it is important also not to exaggerate it. The Lib Dems will recover. Nick Clegg's fledgling leadership is not at risk. Indeed Wednesday night's abstention and pro-referendum rebellion was probably the least worst option for the party. The free vote that some of Clegg's critics advocate on the Lisbon treaty referendum would have seen half of the party in the pro-referendum lobby and the other half, including Clegg himself, in the anti. The derision that would have greeted that damaging spectacle would easily have eclipsed the derision provoked by the abstention. And anyway, Europe isn't a free-vote issue.'

He goes on to discuss the British attitude to Europe:

'....the fundamental problem has always been the vicious circle of fear and ignorance driven by the anti-European press.

In theory it ought not to be impossible to replace this vicious circle with a virtuous one. There was an arresting illustration of this in a Europe-wide survey about attitudes to the European parliament released in Brussels this week. Like most attitude surveys conducted in the EU, this one found that the British are not just the most sceptical on many European issues but also the most ignorant. No other nation knows less and trusts less. No other nation underestimates its clout more (we are the polar opposite of Italy, which massively exaggerates its influence). But our scepticism and our ignorance are two sides of the same euro coin.

Nevertheless the survey showed that the British have an agenda for Europe. Along with the peoples of most other European nations, the British are keen for European institutions to stand up for human rights and sexual equality as the union's prime values. Is this not striking? We want to promote human rights and equality yet we face a permanent propaganda campaign against the Human Rights Act, against the European courts and, in the context of the now defunct EU constitution, against the charter of rights and freedoms - all of which have been relentlessly portrayed as threats to British ways and values rather than the embodiment of them that they really are.

The same survey also revealed that British public opinion has important policies it wants the European Union to pursue. The top priorities for the EU, according to the voters, are to combat terrorism and climate change. Putting such policy priorities into effect would presumably require coordination in judicial and policing systems, in the case of terrorism, as well as a common approach in the international arena to deal with both terrorism and climate change. Yet the anti-European case in the Lisbon treaty debates is dedicated to preventing precisely those possibilities. So far this conspiracy against the public will has carried all before it.

Maybe it is time the Liberal Democrats started to make the case for Europe and how it can actually benefit us more stridently.
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