I don’t agree with Nick. We should be in Europe to reform the EU

by Stephen Tall on November 1, 2012

Nick Clegg will today make the kind of speech which makes it very hard for Lib Dems to push the idea that our party is serious about reform of the European Union. According to the BBC, he will dismiss the chances of any significant changes to the EU’s budget:

In a speech to be delivered to the Chatham House international affairs think-tank, Mr Clegg will say Labour is well aware there was “absolutely no prospect” of achieving a real-terms cut. “Their change of heart is dishonest, it’s hypocritical. And worst of all, Labour’s plan would cost the taxpayer more, not less,” he is expected to say.

“Because in pushing a completely unrealistic position on the EU budget – one that is miles away from any other country’s position – Labour would have absolutely no hope of getting a budget deal agreed.” … He will also say that the Tory rebels have “absolutely no hope” of achieving their goal of forcing the EU to cut spending.

Do you think those quotes survive the ‘doorstep campaigning’ test? Can you imagine delivering them loud and proud at the hustings? Would you put them on your next Focus leaflet? Phrases like “no prospect … no hope” of getting a better budget deal for Britain – they don’t resound with me, they don’t stir me.

Of course, we have to stick by our liberal principles even (and especially) when we think they’ll be unpopular. But I don’t see much liberal principle under-pinning them, either. Here’s why:

The issues at stake

1) The European Commission’s proposed budget ceiling of £826bn is a 5% rise compared with the 2007-2013 budget. At a time when every EU country is trying to squeeze its budgets to stop debt increasing ever higher, that headline fact is a hard sell.

2) It is even harder to square given how that budget is spent. The single biggest ticket item is the Common Agricultural Policy, which accounts for some 47% of the EU’s total annual spend, the bulk of it on direct subsidies to farmers – a system which rigs the agricultural trading system in favour of rich countries and against poor farmers in the developing world.

3) Nor are Lib Dems against EU budget savings: Lib Dems have pushed for years that the EU should end the high-cost absurdity of splitting its working between three cities, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Brussels.

The negotiating tactics at stake:

1) Ever since the Coalition deal was struck, Lib Dems have pointed proudly to our processes of internal democracy as having helped deliver a good deal which saw much of our election manifesto delivered. The ‘triple lock’ agreement – that the parliamentary party, the Federal Executive and conference representatives all had to agree to the deal – gave our negotiators a strong hand. Is Nick really saying that Parliament has now weakened the Prime Minister’s ability to negotiate? If so, I can’t see how.

2) Of course Labour is being opportunistic. Just as they were opportunistic 20 years ago under John Smith, voting against a Maastricht Treaty they agreed with simply to inflict defeat on John Major’s government, at a time when Paddy Ashdown and the Lib Dems bravely held out in support of their principles. But opportunism is not the same as being wrong.

3) Nick Clegg’s line of argument – we shouldn’t argue for something we’ve no hope of achieving – is neither assertive nor positive. Contrast this with the Lib Dem leader’s strong stand last December over David Cameron’s pointless non-veto (‘an inept negotiating strategy placed in the hands of an inexperienced prime minister’ as it was labelled at the time). I’m sure there’s much more in the speech than the lines that have been given to the media, but it’s the quotes at the top of this piece which will be regarded as the Lib Dem position.

What I want Nick Clegg to say

I am pro-European. I am, broadly speaking, pro-EU. But the Lib Dems have always championed a reformed EU. An EU which is more responsive to democratic opinion. An EU which liberalises the free movement of people and trade while tackling the problems we share, such as environmental pollution and crime. That is the positive version of the EU I want as a Lib Dem to be talking to voters about. I think that version of the EU is at odds with the budget the EU works within.

‘In Europe not run by Europe’ was one of the Tories more memorably successful campaigning lines. It’s a bit negative for my tastes. But ‘In Europe to reform the EU’ is what I believe the Lb Dem role should be. Perhaps there is “no prospect … no hope” of achieving that, either. But it’s what I want our party to campaign for.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.