Fiona Hall MEP’s Liberal Democrat Conference Diary
Writing exclusively for Endeavour Public Affairs Fiona Hall MEP reports back from last week’s Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Brighton.
Fiona Hall is a Liberal Democrat MEP representing the North East of England; she is also the leader of the UK Liberal Democrat group of MEPs in the European Parliament.
On the final full day of the Liberal Democrat Federal Conference in Brighton last week, I was on stage for the Reports of the Parliamentary Parties. I was asked whether I was disappointed Europe hadn’t featured more prominently at the conference. I had to say, in response, that Europe had been an integral part of the week’s events and discussions.
Unlike the other parties, the Lib Dems don’t view ‘Europe’ as an isolated topic to be shunted off to the fringes. We acknowledge the European dimension in virtually every aspect of policy. It is woven into the fabric of every decision we take.
But even putting aside the Party’s broad inclusion of Europe, this was a conference at which Europe played a prominent role, with a keynote speech from an MEP, the launch of a new European crime campaign and the Commission’s first appearance at a Lib Dem gathering.
Here are some of the highlights from the week:
Friday 21 September
I arrive in Brighton a day before the conference officially opens. In a meeting with the Party’s Head of Campaigns we agree that the Tories will be under huge pressure in the 2014 European elections. They are already losing their Eurosceptic supporters to UKIP, while their pragmatists and moderates are increasingly appalled at the lurch to the right. 2014 could see a split party and heavy losses.
Return to my hotel to catch the 6 o’clock news and see Nigel Farage is proposing a pact with the Tories.
Saturday 22 September
Conference already in full swing. I have a busy morning with the consultation session held by the Zero Carbon Working Group, who are preparing a policy paper. Legislation signed up to at a European level is the low-profile background framework for a lot of the discussion but the devil is in the detail of how we put that into practice at a national level.
For example, the Energy Efficiency Directive agreed this summer requires Member States to encourage local authorities to have high energy efficiency criteria in the public procurement. But how should the Coalition Government implement that – by the minister writing a few warm words to local councils or by a more demanding and more effective statutory requirement?
Sunday 23 September
Another day on energy matters. Used the opportunity of the debate on International Co-operation on the Environment to flag up the need for 2030 EU renewable targets – the 2020 targets are working very well at getting new non-fossil investment off the ground.
Later, I took part in an Energy Summit with the Lib Dem Secretary of State Ed Davey and business leaders. The big message was the need for predictability and certainty. That’s something that EU legislation helps to provide – it may be a cumbersome business getting an agreement but once in place it gives industry the stability it craves.
Today also saw the launch of a crime campaign my colleague Sarah Ludford and I have been working on recently. Tory backbenchers are applying pressure on David Cameron to opt-out of cross-border crime co-operation measures when the opportunity arises in 2014.
Recently, former heads of MI5 and the Metropolitan Police were among those to sign a letter warning against the opt-out, describing it as “self-defeating”. Sarah is a crime and civil liberties expert and we agreed that someone needed to be making the political case against the opt-out. Pandering to the Europhobia of the Tory right would endanger UK citizens, reduce the likelihood of redress for victims and give criminals an easy route to freedom. We believe criminals should have nowhere to hide in Europe and we’ll be making that case over the next two years to ensure the right decision is made in the end.
Monday 24 September
Today I was a speaker at an interesting fringe meeting hosted by the Chemical Industries Association. Despite issues around some of the detail of the REACH legislation on chemicals, the industry is very clear about the advantages of being in Europe. An industry spokesman said that if people understood just how many jobs were dependent on us being in the EU they might be less inclined to believe the stream of Eurosceptic stories churned out by the tabloids. He agreed that business itself had not done enough in terms of stating the facts and making this clear.
Tuesday 25 September
This idea that businesses have been far too quiet and quiescent on Europe made up the rousing finale to Sharon Bowles’ keynote speech to conference this afternoon.
Sharon said: “If you City bosses don’t put your heads above the parapet now, and tell the Prime Minister, Chancellor, public and media about the concerns you share with me – then forget your UK lobbying, you’ll need the time to find other ways to get full access to the Eurozone.”
Eurosceptics never shy away from putting their case, often with the use of misleading or downright incorrect, figures. Those of us that appreciate the huge net positive effect Europe has on the UK must be equally vociferous in making our case for continued membership.
Tuesday was my last day at conference as I had to travel to Timor Leste in my role as Chief Observer for the EU Election Observation Mission.