Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Time to stand up and be counted on Europe

Not a real photo! Credit to Jason Hunter for this though.
The coalition government has always had areas of general agreement between the three parties in it (yes three – The Liberal Democrats, moderate Conservatives and the 81-100 “Tea Party” conservative MPs). Many commentators up to now have commented how well all three seemed to be getting along on matters concerning the EU, considering the massive divide between the majority in my party who want to be fully involved in the European Union, fighting for structures which suit the UK needs and reversing the democratic deficit built up by member state governments, and the Tea Party Tory MPs who will not stop till Britain leaves the EU and becomes a welfare free free trade island with links to the USA.

Indeed it is quite surprising how we all rubbed along. The problem is that whilst Liberal Democrats are consensual politicians to their core, always willing to negotiate and be reasonable, the Tea Party Tories are fundamentalists, who believe in an isolated Little England (and it is England, there are virtually none of them from Scotland or Wales). They are not serious negotiators.

As a member of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG), the internal organisation that works for stronger links between the Liberal Democrats and our European Liberal sister parties, I am a strong believer in the ideals of the European Union and believe that our interests are best served by being at the negotiating table and that there are areas ( for example the economy, the Environment, management of the seas, worldwide free trade, foreign aid, foreign policy, immigration and policing) where Britians interests are served best by co-operating.

So it was in a somewhat depressed mood that I trudged down to London yesterday for a meeting of LDEGs executive committee. We welcomed two of Nick Cleggs special advisors (or SPADs) to the meeting where they set out their impressions of the negotiations in the build up to the UK summit and the aftermath.

It is clear that very few in the cabinet, let alone MPs and MEPs, were involved in negotiations. They were kept fairly tight, as it would be folly to let other governments know your position before you want to let it be known. Initially, Cameron wanted to go into negotiations arguing for a substantial repatriation of powers, including all Working Time Directive issues. Lib Dems generally agree that there is a case for the repatriation of some of these powers but, unlike the Tories, we would not see this as an excuse to abolish laws limiting the amount employers can exploit their workers.

So Clegg successfully argued against this stance, on the grounds that there was no point at all in going to a summit that was about the survival of the Euro talking about a totally different issue. That would have just resulted in mockery from our EU partners and an inevitable walk out by the PM.

The seven concessions asked for by the UK government were backed by Nick Clegg. They are relatively minor and many are being negotiated by our excellent MEP Sharon Bowles, who is chair in the European Parliament of the Economic and Finance committee (incidentally the fall out from the summit makes it increasingly unlikely that a British MEP will be taken seriously as a candidate for the chair of such a body in the future, a very sad fact). But it was acknowledged that he needed a “fig leaf” to show his Tea Party backbenchers. It was also agreed that we were unlikely to get all 7 concessions and they were the start of bargaining, not “red lines”.

Nick Clegg did a lot of lobbying with EU leaders to get the UK position agreed. He is personally liked by EU leaders, probably due to his mutilingualism and his experience of EU institutions from being an MEP and EU trade negotiator. Nick even flew to Spain to lobby the new Spanish prime minister. It was felt that Merkel was sympathetic but that Sarkozy, who has a presidential election to fight soon and always enjoys a bit of Anglais bashing, wasn't.

Any other UK Prime Minister of the past 40 years, including Thatcher, would have been able to get a deal. Cameron's isolation in Europe (the Conservatives pulled out of the pan European Conservativee grouping a few years ago so didn't go to the pre meeting of centre right leaders where a “Line” of negotiation was agreed between the majority of Europes leaders) added to an incompetent negotiating stance (he effectively walked out rather than stretch out negotiations) meant that the UK was left isolated. The non Euro countries, who we could have expected to have found common cause with, were so appalled by the UKs stance that they were more likely to throw their lot in with the Euro 17, in an attempt not to be seen to be destructive like the UK.

All this resulted in Britain not being at the table for future negotiations, a disastrous position meaning we will no longer be involved in shaping many elements of the EUs financial issues. This is really bad for UK business, both the City and UK manufacturing. This has been backed up by near unanimous condemnation of Cameron from the Chambers of Commerce, the City and the CBI.

The view of LDEG (and I am fairly sure of the DPM as well) is that Cameron intentionally broke the spirit of the compromise before the summit and went to Brussels less than keen to get a deal. He put the interests of his party ahead of the country. That is really disappointing. The Liberal Democrats have time and time again put their short term popularity with the public on the line for the sake of the national interest.

We did not want to compromise on tuition fees or but recognised the need for give and take to achieve a government acting in the national interest, getting deficit reduction. We recognise that government is about doing what's right rather than what pleases your party. By walking away when a deal could have been secured, Cameron has let the Liberal Democrats down and much more importantly the country down.

LDEG is now determined to make the case for the Liberal Democrats to continue to be a party that supports staying in the EU and staying at the negotiating table. I want to make the case to the British people, who have been drip fed a diet of jingistic anti European nonsense by the press for 30 years.

I am sick of hearing our national dialogue with Europe being framed in language reminiscent of WW2 (“bulldog spirit”, “unlike the rest of Europe we're not afraid of Germany”). The rest of Europe has moved on. Germany has built up a successful competitive manufacturing based economy whilst the UK has given up its status as a leader in making products to become a retail and services based economy. During those years, productivity has dropped whilst governments have just made us work harder to make up the difference.

The North East, my home for all my adult life, is the only region with a net positive balance of trade with the EU – i.e. it exports more than it imports. Whilst marginalisation may be more acceptable to regions where financial services dominate, it is essential for people in the North East that our links with Europe endure.

I am proud of Nick Clegg for speaking out on Europe (apparently Clegg and Cameron had their first stand up row about this matter) and for saying what's right. It must be made clear that displeasing the Liberal Democrats in the coalition on Europe carries as high a political price as annoying the wing nuts in his own party for Cameron.

The Liberal Democrats have always campaigned for what we think is right, not what the polls say is popular at the moment. By carving out a clear pro-growth, pro-trade position that argues for involvement with the EU, I believe we will be respected for speaking out.

If you're a Lib Dem member, you will get a lot out of joining LDEG. Here is their website http://ldeg.org/en/

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