Saturday, 30 June 2012


The Lib Dems are generally pilloried for our approach to Europe.  We like it, we support it, we promote it. That much is understood and generally misrepresented by all and sundry.  I, for example, am a passionate European but I think the European Union as it is constituted is a disaster.
As for the Tories, they are a running joke on Europe, with successive Tory leaders hurled onto the rack of right-wing Euroscepticism which infests their party. That much is also understood and generally enjoyed by all and sundry outside of the Tory Party.

Their latest leader has proven himself singularly inept on Europe, starting with his foolish decision to leave the right-wing grouping, the European People's Party, which would have gained him allies across the continent. He did this for short-term gain, to win his party's leadership. He won the leadership of his party but he lost the support of many potential allies in Europe.

He has failed miserably to do anything positive in this current crisis. He goes to meetings, he annoys people, he makes sub-Churchillian statements about the importance of the latest press statement...and all the time economies tumble and people suffer.

However, we shouldn't blame Dave for his failings on Europe. There hasn't been a single British Prime Minister who has 'got' Europe, not even Ted Heath, who was at least a committed European but so much so that it made him craven as he begged for membership.

The problem with this - and the reason for this rant - is that we are once again missing a huge opportunity.  Since 1945, European countries have sought involvement and leadership from Britain and since 1945 Britain has failed.  We have pretended that we are separate (look at a map: we aren't), or better (look at GDP figures for Germany and France: we aren't), or just not like them (look at 5,000 years of history: complete twaddle). 

Now we're in a new period of desperate crisis, with European countries riven between the Germans, who are being asked to bail out less cautious countries and who are quite reasonably asking what is in it for them, and a host of others who want growth, investment, development, an end to austerity and chocolate for breakfast but who can't say who pays for this (see 'Germany', above).

A British Prime Minister with a vision, a stated commitment to the idea of European countries working together and a sense of the fundamental importance of the European market to the British economy would be jetting around the capitals of Europe, offering support, advice and brokerage and providing a British vision for Europe based on enterprise and co-operation - but without surrendering Britain to a federal Europe, whatever the rabid right wing loons might have us think.  That Prime Minister would develop relationships and would secure a place for our country at the heart of negotiations to lift Europe from its current gloom - and through this process lift Britain's economy from the doldrums.

Sadly that Prime Minister is as real as Paddington Bear.  What we have is Dave the Eurosceptic, Dave the populist, Dave the conciliator, Dave the prisoner of the Tory right wing, Dave the man with the vision to see as far as 2015 but no further.

The latest 'debate' is over a referendum on Britain's membership of Europe.  Fine with the Lib Dems: we're the only party which has called for this to be held.  However, this is not a policy, merely an argument. We would be confident in such an argument since we would reckon on the support of British business, which would like to secure the 50% of our trade which is done with Europe, together with the 3m people who rely on Europe for their jobs. Bring it on.  Unfortunately, this is not a long-term policy for Britain or for Europe.

Labour will demand a referendum. Dave will too, in order to head Boris off in his bid for the Tory leadership (and possibly Prime Ministership, may God have mercy on us!) but neither of the old parties has a policy on Europe. We do.  We know it's good for us and good for Europe for a strong, robust British membership which gives us the strength and the allies to take on the parsimonious Germans and the spendthrift French, Italians, Spanish and Greeks and hopefully bring them closer together.

In the Independent today, Vince Cable was interviewed discussing the decision of John Smith in the late 1970s to encourage Japanese investment in Britain - at the time a risky and unpopular strategy.  He had a vision and it worked.  Sadly we never had a Prime Minister Smith.  Instead we got a warmongering pygmy. There is about as much light from Labour on Europe as there is from the deepest recesses of the Tory right-wing.

Until we get someone in Number 10 who is grown up about Europe we are all doomed: Britain to a position of irrelevance and Europe to perennial arguments between Germany and the rest.