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.