We should be cementing the UK’s place as a dominant player in Europe
Following the General Election, the Government has embarked upon a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the European Union. The outcome of this renegotiation will be put to the people of the UK in an in/out referendum in either 2016 or 2017.
During this period of renegotiation and during the referendum campaign itself, Endeavour Public Affairs will be publishing a series of articles from a range of influential people on both sides of the debate. The first article is from Catherine Bearder MEP, Liberal Democrat MEP for the South East of England.
To follow Catherine Bearder on Twitter – @catherinemep
In under one year’s time, the UK will be faced with one of its biggest democratic decisions in recent history – whether or not to remain in the EU. Meanwhile the looming possibility of EU exit casts a great shadow over the country’s economic prosperity and influence in the EU and the rest of the world.
But the referendum provides an opportunity to set the fact straights on Britain’s membership of the EU and the benefits it brings. As an unashamedly pro-European and internationalist party, Liberal Democrats will be making the passionate case why a strong and united Britain in a strong and united Europe is more important than ever in the 21st century.
For too long, the British debate over Europe has been dominated by a largely eurosceptic tabloid press, which portrays the issue as a constant battle between the UK and meddling Brussels bureaucrats. The day-to-day reality of EU decision-making, in which 28 different countries work together to boost trade and respond to international challenges, is often boiled down into a simple “Us versus Them.” This wilfully ignores the fact that every EU law and agreement is negotiated, refined and voted on by British representatives, influencing the outcome, whether they are UK ministers in the Council or elected MEPs in the European Parliament.
The truth is that as the second largest country in the EU by population and GDP, the UK wields significant clout. Britain championed the creation of the single market in the 1980s, and in the 1990s we led calls for the enlargement of the EU to spread democracy and prosperity to the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In many ways, the European Union in its current form is a British-led project. Many on the continent are rightly baffled as to why the UK is now side-lining itself and even considering leaving altogether. With current projections showing that Britain is on course to overtake Germany as the EU’s biggest economy by 2030, we should be building on our legacy and cementing the UK’s place as a dominant player in Europe throughout the 21st century.
Instead, David Cameron’s clumsy diplomacy is tending to alienate natural allies in the EU and is leading the UK towards to isolation. Countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, grateful to the UK for backing their accession to the EU and who are key supporters of a more open and competitive Europe, feel affronted by the Conservative Party’s plans to discriminate against EU migrants over in-work benefits. Meanwhile Germany, while keen to keep the UK in the EU, has become exasperated with the Conservative Party’s increasingly heated rhetoric on migration and David Cameron’s failure to face down the eurosceptics, especially in his own party. The reform-minded Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was bemused and irritated when Cameron asked him for his support on EU reform, whilst declining to take a single refugee from the Mediterranean. The success of Cameron’s renegotiation now depends on convincing EU partners that the changes he seeks are for the benefit of all the countries in the EU, not just for his troublesome Tory backbenchers and right wing press.
On some reform issues the UK is pushing at an open door. Long-awaited expansion of the EU’s single market into the digital sector is forging ahead and is set to bring huge benefits for British businesses and consumers. There is widespread support around Europe for improving the EU’s competitiveness and ensuring EU legislation does not overly burden small businesses, and to that end, the new European Commission has already embarked on a mission to streamline all existing legislation and has dramatically cut back the number of new proposals. Even on the contentious issue of social security benefits, seen as a sticking point by some, there are many countries that support changes to tackle perceived abuse of the variety of systems and so-called benefit tourism.
However, some of the demands being made by eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, including giving the UK a veto over all EU laws, are clearly unachievable. If all EU countries could pick and choose which EU rules they obeyed, the whole single market would simply unravel. Those Conservatives who want to see the UK leave the EU should come clean and admit it, not keep making increasingly preposterous demands of their Prime Minister. David Cameron must have the courage to stand up for what he believes in rather than giving in to pressure from the nationalist wing of his party. His U-turn on whether to allow his ministers to campaign for Brexit may well be a worrying sign of what is to come.
Ultimately, Cameron will have to choose between standing up for the interests of the country or the unity of his party.
Published: Monday 14 September 2015
© Copyright of Endeavour Public Affairs 2015
Photograph: © Copyright Catherine Bearder MEP
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.