By Angela Harbutt
Stephen Tall has a really good article over on LDV today on the subject of Europe and Cameron’s decision to reject the proposed ‘Merkozy’ EU treaty. In summary his view is that whilst he is not going to shed any tears that the UK refused to sign-up to the deal, he says “it’s a crying shame that the UK isn’t trying to lead from within”.
Like Stephen, I consider myself an internationalist first and foremost and whilst I broadly support of the concept of the EU - but I am not so blind that I can’t see just how fat, corrupt, protectionist and, frankly, undemocratic the EU has become. Within that, the Euro-zone has become something of a joke – singularly inept at solving problems of its own making – flailing around coming up with one bad idea after another. The latest, (frankly laughable) idea was to introduce a Tobin tax (a tax on financial transactions) . This sought to raise many billions of euros, of which well over half would come from the Britain. Given how important the financial sector is to this country – and the likely outcome of any such move – it was never going to be acceptable.
So we have to consider whether any other outcome was ever really likely? The truth of the matter (and there is so much that we don’t know about what actually happened during the discussions) is that David Cameron was out-manoeuvred by the French (mainly) and the Germans. The French wanted a policy that would treat the symptoms (debt) not the cause (overspending) and wanted Britain to pay for it. If they couldn’t get that then isolating Britain was the next best option. That’s bad news for the UK – but I suspect even worse news for Europe. And whilst the British Euro-sceptics may be crowing and the French and Germans basking in self-righteous glory – the truth is it’s a crying shame for everyone.
So what of the Lib Dem’s role in all of this? It seems clear that in the run up to the discussions, Nick did all he could to help facilitate the best possible deal for the UK. Good . That’s what you want the deputy PM to be doing putting the country’s interest first (as he did when he led the party into coalition).
Nick has also shown himself to be “in tune” with the Lib Dem membership. Nick is a Euro-realist. Likewise the Lib Dem members. In a recent poll of members, 51% rejected a move towards an even closer union with Europe. Yes, we like the concept . No we don’t like what it has become. Here are some of the quotes from that survey….
“refuse closer union UNTIL such time as the EU has been restructured into a less bureaucratic and more Liberal form”
“The right to decide what sovereignty is pooled remains an important one and should sometimes be reversed. We do not for example still need a coal and steel community or agricultural policy”
“Closer union must come with increased accountability and reform”
“We should work towards reform of CAP. We should push for more democracy in EU decision making. We should make every effort to avoid too much legislation coming from Brussels”
“It seems that the UK is not really playing a proper role therefore we should step back and re-negotiate the pressing points, like money, Common Agricultural Policy”
So the idea that we are a party blindly committed to Europe no matter how illiberal, protectionist, bureaucratic and corrupt it becomes is just plain nonsense. Nick and the majority of the party would rather be in Europe than out of it- but recognise that Europe desperately needs reform. We recognise that it isn’t Europe “at all costs”.
Where Nick has made an error – and here I will bang on again about his PR and the party’s PR – is how he has managed the post-veto situation. On Friday Nick is seemingly behind Cameron’s dramatic veto (saying that Cameron’s demands had been ‘modest and reasonable’), and a dreaded “spokesman” confirming that Nick was ‘fully signed-up’ to the veto). Given that William Hague has also stated on the record that “The negotiating position that David Cameron took on Thursday night and Friday morning was agreed in advance with the Lib Dems in the coalition” – it seems reasonable to believe that it is true.
24 hours later Nick is “ bitterly disappointed” with the outcome in Brussels, that the outcome is “bad for Britain” and could leave it “isolated and marginalised“.
Of course the two positions are not mutually exclusive.
UK’s demands probably were “reasonable” and Nick almost certainly would have agreed that Cameron should/could use the veto if all else failed (I can’t imagine that it would have been very plausible to ask David Cameron to “pop out of the room” every five minutes during the negotiations to check if his actions were OK with Nick). It is also true that the outcome was pretty miserable for everyone. What is frustrating it that Nick couldn’t have said all that on Friday in one (somewhat long) breath rather than starting out sounding supportive and getting increasingly angst-ridden about the outcome. This speaks yet again of Nick needing much better media advice that he himself trusts. This did not require a PR guru to get this right. It just required a bit of forward planning and a half decent PR brain. Neither are really much in evidence on this one.
Of course Nick has not been helped by the party grandees – and may indeed explain his faltering media stance… Talk of Vince resigning, coalition splits, even questions regarding Nick’s future as leader are unhelpful and show that we still have an awful long way to go if we want to convince the electorate that we are “fit to govern”. We have enough on our plate with the hysterical right wing press having a pop at Nick without our own doing the same. It’s odd that some Lib Dems complain at the Tories being only “half-in” Europe when some of them are only “half-in” the Lib Dems.
UPDATE: Nick’s absence from parliament this afternoon has created a furore across the media. He says its because he did not want to be a distraction. But in actual fact his absence seems to have created a much larger distraction. Further evidence that he needs better media advice?
FURTHER UPDATE: Watch BBC News at Ten and tell me that Nick staying away was a “good idea”
, lib dems
, Nick Clegg