Confessions of a Lib Dem Eurosceptic

by Stephen Tall on February 22, 2016

By Lib Dem standards, I’m something of a Eurosceptic. That is, I accept the EU is less than perfect. A lot less than perfect.

I’m not alone. When I polled party members for LibDemVoice a couple of years ago, I was surprised to discover less than half wanted Britain to integrate further. Indeed, an estimated one-in-six Lib Dem voters will choose Leave on 23 June.

In reality, Lib Dem policy is a lot less starry-eyed than some activists. For example, the party has been campaigning for years to bring an end to the European Parliament’s monthly travel between Brussels and Strasbourg, a move – or, more accurately, non-move – that would save £150m a year (and almost 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions).

Vince Cable once (rightly) branded the protectionist Common Agricultural Policy “a complete disgrace”. The EU’s decision-making is as opaque as it is sclerotic, as Nick Clegg acknowledged: “When I worked in the European Union I remember it took 15 years to decide the definition of chocolate and a chocolate directive. Anything that takes a decade and a half to define what chocolate is is in need of reform”.

Yet the party is widely perceived, and I understand why, to be slavishly obeisant to the EU. Too often we have mistaken being pro-internationalist, pro-Europeans as requiring us to be overly defensive of the EU establishment. The party’s position has too often been defined by dislike of the Tory right and frothing Europhobe press than by the liberal principles we should apply: open, transparent, accountable government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The Lib Dem approach to David Cameron’s re-negotations have compounded this problem.

For years, the party opposed holding an in/out referendum altogether (unless required by treaty change), latterly simply as a bargaining chip for future coalition negotiations with the Tories. Unlike the Tory PM.

Then Mr Cameron put forward his shopping list of EU reform demands. These were either modest or irrelevant or both but they achieved their aim of showcasing his willingness to fight for national interests.

By contrast, the Lib Dems have stayed schtum. We should have been setting out our own renegotiation ideas – more democratic accountability, greater transparency, anti-tariff, etc – so that we could fight for Remain on the basis we were “in the EU to improve it”.

But because it was reckoned this might undermine Mr Cameron’s renegotiations – and they are reckoned to be the key to referendum victory – that was ruled out. Leaving the Tory PM to claim sole bragging rights and the Lib Dems left looking, again, like slavish adherents to all things Brussels.

I know many of my fellow Lib Dems are looking forward to the campaign. I’m not. I’m reminded of something I wrote two years ago about the Scottish in/out referendum, which has parallels:

If I were a Scot with a vote in September, I’m not sure which side I would favour. I see no reason why an independent Scotland wouldn’t do quite well out of new arrangements, but it would of course be a risky venture into the unknown (which is why I don’t think the SNP’s bid will succeed). As that great liberal Ludovic Kennedy once rhetorically asked, “I still believe that if Denmark can run its own affairs, why can’t Scotland?”

It is, of course, ironic that so many (Tory) unionists who argued Scotland would be dead and buried if it struck out on its own believe that the UK can and will thrive in similar circumstances.

I’m not a unionist. Nor am I a separatist. I’m a federalist (my definition: accountable power distributed locally, nationally and supranationally, operated at the lowest level possible).

I’m sure the UK would do just fine as an independent country… eventually. But, as a certain well-known Tory MP argued a couple of weeks ago – before U-turning at the weekend – I am concerned “that leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country – low skills, low social mobility, low investment etc – that have nothing to do with Europe”.

Boris was right then. He’s not right now. And ultimately, that’s the problem with Euroscepticism: the Eurosceptics. Somehow the subject brings out the worst in them, with even sober, intelligent, mild-mannered folk like Times commentator Tim Montgomerie transformed into irrational obsessives: English cybernats, nationalist Corbynistas. As JS Mill so nearly remarked, “I did not mean that Eurosceptics are generally weird; I meant, that weird persons are generally Eurosceptics”.

Considered on its own merits, Brexit isn’t such an appalling conclusion. But then you look at who that means winning. And I know I’m going to be sticking with Remain.


There are bad things about the EU, most notably the CAP, but leaving would imho make things worse, including environmentally. I don’t think, in these times, that there is going to be such a thing as pure sovereignty. Farrago talks about how this country can stride out of the EU and make free trade deals with any country it wants to. But I’d like to know how many international trade deals he has negotiated, I’d guess none.

I think the consequences of Brexit are worse, this country certainly would be less of a world player and the British union would be at risk, a fact which many Little Englanders in UKIP would welcome. And I know the arguments that the CAP/CFP are anti-environmental, wasteful and generally bad. They need to be reformed, but Cameron has personally blocked attempts to reform them…

… and outside the EU, the same wasteful and environmentally damaging subsidies would be there.…/ukips-policy…/

And all this, maize and the like, at public expense.

Theoretically, Brexit could be followed by Britain moving in a more liberal direction, but more likely it would produce a shrunken, diminished isolationist state only interested in talking to itself and playing no great role on the world stage. I am concerned about the Russian role in financing and supporting these anti-EU and nationalist movements, and we need a multi-polar world with strong liberal and democratic organisations, which is why I’m also pro-NATO. You’ve got to think that if something is mourned in Washington and every EU capital except Moscow, where it’s wildly celebrated, it may not be a good idea. If something gains the support of Chris Grayling, George Galloway, Iain Duncan Smith and chancers like BoJo, it may not be a good idea.

by asquith on February 23, 2016 at 7:59 pm. Reply #

And the point of your missive is what exactly?

You are just a Lib Dem ‘eurosceptic’, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, who will vote remain. Might I suggest you woiuld always vote remain as a bog standard Lib Dem europhile, who is simply trying to give the impression you have an open mind.

Sadly you have failed miserably to convince.

by Raddiy on February 23, 2016 at 9:09 pm. Reply #

Thanks for making my point for me about Eurosceptics, Raddiy 🙂

by Stephen Tall on February 23, 2016 at 9:12 pm. Reply #

[…] 5. Confessions of a Lib Dem Eurosceptic by Stephen Tall on Stephen Tall. But he’s not keen on the company he’d keep if he chose Leave. […]

by Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #451 on February 28, 2016 at 7:01 pm. Reply #

I am glad you will vote remain at the end of the day. We are not being asked to remain or leave a perfect EU. We have to be in it to win it!

by Nick Hopkinson on February 29, 2016 at 9:00 am. Reply #

Can we please stop calling those implacably opposed to the EU and all it stands for by the cuddly term “Eurosceptics.”
They are not “sceptical”, they are hostile to the EU (and more than a few of them are closet or not so closet racists).

So can we please call them what they are ie, Europhobes or anti-Europeans.

by Steve Comer on February 29, 2016 at 5:53 pm. Reply #

The old chestnut about the monthly migration of the EP. Why does this happen ? Because there is a national veto on location of the EP (confirmed by John Major). Eurosceptics don't like European democracy. They want everything decided by separate nations so they have no right to complain about this. Supporters of the EU like myself would happily give the EP the power to decide its own location by majority vote but nationalists would hate it. The objectives of the CAP set out in the Treaty of Rome are laudable, the mechanism to achieve them lamentable but it has been under constant review and takes up considerably less of the EU budget than 20 years ago. Leaving the EU would actually reduce the chances of reforming it. Clegg's comment about chocolate rather gives the lie to the idea of the centralised dictatorial EU perpetrated by brexiters. Agreement between 28 countries does take time. Would Stephen Tall prefer each country to have its own definition and its own regulationsm, creating a plethora of barriers to free trade ? Changing Sunday Trading laws in UK took decades. Reforming the House of Lords started in 1911 and isn't finished yet. Do we therefore condemn the UK and leave it or do we keep trying to reform it. Perfection isn't possible in politics and I am rather fed up with everyone from Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Sytephen Tall for harping on about the imperfections of the EU when those here at home are much worse. Years of such comments have hepled frame the eurosceptic climate in the UK which we face today. They woudl have been better employed promoting the EU instead of leaving that to the last few months before a referendum.

by David Grace on February 29, 2016 at 8:45 pm. Reply #

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