How would you make the positive case for Europe?

by Stephen Tall on January 12, 2009

The countdown to elections to the European Parliament – to be held in tandem with local government elections on 10th June – is now on. Last week, here on LDV, the Lib Dems’ vice-chair of our Euro election campaign, Willie Rennie, staked out the internationalist, liberal principles around which he said the party should fight the elections, and contrasted it with ‘lethargic Labour’ and ‘isolationist Tories’.

And, over the weekend, two Lib Dem bloggers also elaborated their own views of Europe, the EU and what the Lib Dems should be saying. James Graham at Quaequam Blog! noted the political muddle the party got itself into over the Lisbon Treaty referendum, but argued, “all that I could live with if the pro-European parties were prepared to stick their necks out and actually argue the case for European Union. Except they don’t, fearing it will make them unpopular.”

The theme was taken up by ‘Costigan Quist’ at Himmelgarten Café, who reckoned the bigger problem is that

… we’ve lost sight of what we want the EU to do. That clarity of post-war vision is a distant memory. The people of Europe have left it up to our political masters to run the thing, and that suits the political classes rather well as they use the EU as a convenient whipping boy to take the blame for unpopular decisions (if it’s popular, it’s a government success; if it’s unpopular, it’s been forced on us by some EU directive). … Instead of messing around with referendums on obscure treaties, we need to understand what we, the people of Europe, want the EU to achieve over the next few decades and then figure out how the EU needs to change to do it.

And he laid down this two-fold challenge for our party:

The Lib Dem part in this story is to figure out how the EU can be used firstly to further the interests of the British people and secondly to achieve good things around the world that the UK couldn’t hope to start to do alone. It has the potential to play to a Lib Dem strength: entering into a genuine dialog between politicians and the people.

On ‘Costigan’s’ second challenge – to show how the EU can “achieve good things around the world that the UK couldn’t hope to start to do alone” – it strikes me there are two complementary challenges. First, to ensure Europe maintains a global voice greater than the sum of its parts, as a bulwark against the US superpower, and the emerging giants of Russia and Asia. As Timothy Garton-Ash put it in The Guardian last week:

Why can’t we Europeans get our act together when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world? On our own continent we have done great things: we have almost completed the most ambitious enlargement in the history of the union; we have just marked the 10th anniversary of the euro. In external policy we are little further on than we were a decade ago. And time is not on our side. As powers such as China and India rise, the relative power of Europe inevitably decreases – so pooling our resources is to some extent simply running to keep up. Global warming and nuclear proliferation will not wait on our endless internal debates.

Secondly, through its enlargement into eastern Europe and the near Middle East, the EU could, as Chris Patten has put it:

… attempt to prevent that ‘clash of civilisations’ predicted by Samuel Huntington and devoutly hoped for by extremists, especially (but not solely) Islamic ones. The reconciliation of France and Germany was the necessary and admirable European accomplishment of the twentieth century; reconciling the West and the Islamic world, with Europe acting as hinge between the two, is a major task for the twenty-first. (Not Quite the Diplomat, pp.143-44)

These are powerful propositions. But I am well aware they are unlikely to connect with the British electorate in the same way that assaults on the vagaries of the EU – from ‘metric martyrs’ to the iniquitous CAP – will strike a chord for the anti-EU parties. So how would you answer ‘Costigan’s’ second challenge, to show “how the EU can be used firstly to further the interests of the British people”?