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Opinion: Looking forward to the EU referendum

June 11, 2015 8:48 PM
By Mark Argent - PPC for North West Leicestershire in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

With the legislation for the EU referendum now before parliament, that process is starting to feel real. I am thinking about what this might mean for Liberal Democrats, and the voice of liberal democracy.

In the General Election the consensus was not to campaign on Europe. That was probably wise, if counter-intuitive. Things are about to become very different.

In addition to the big question of which side will win, I had been thinking of the referendum in terms of its likely effect on the British political landscape - of the alliances that will form on both sides, and the possibility of splits in the Conservative party or defections leading to an early General Election, but am beginning to think more of this in terms of our distinctiveness.

There are profound reasons behind Liberal Democrat support for the EU. In bringing the "Yes" campaign into being we will be effectively inviting others onto our turf. Can we do something now to lay out our territory, both to boost the case for a "yes" vote, and so that we get the credit we deserve on this?

To help my own thinking, I jotted down some of the very general benefits of EU membership, and the first few were:

  • Freedom of movement and of opportunity;
  • Stability which allows people to live their own lives free from dull conformity, with room for lots of different cultures to co-exist;
  • Prosperity tied to community: freeing people from poverty but in a way that doesn't diminish others;
  • Taking the decisions centrally that are best done centrally, but devolving as much as possible, so decisions are made as close as possible to the people affected by them;
  • Working constructively with people with whom there are profound differences, so that something can be built for the good of all that doesn't trample minorities - it is interesting that this is a key part of how the EU works, and of what we brought to the coalition.

On that last point, we have taken a hammering for the coalition, but my sense is that this is because the British public is not yet used to politicians working together constructively: in time we will get the credit we deserve for 2010 - 2015. In pushing for people to get their minds around a more constructive style of European politics, we will, even without trying, be helping to rehabilitate the legacy of the coalition.

More generally, I am struck by the parallels between that list and the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution, which makes sense of the affinity we have for the EU

On the thorny topic of EU "reform", the widespread UK story seems to be that the EU is bad and reform might make it bearable, but most of the rest of the EU "reform" has a positive sense: it is about continuing to develop the European project for the good of all the people's of Europe. Change and reform have been part of the process all the way along the path from the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community to where we are today. That's not about empire-building, but is about continuing to create opportunities and possibilities in a way that feels very Liberal.

Notwithstanding the bruising we feel at the moment, we are an outward-looking, internationalist party. When people vote "Yes" to staying in the EU will also be voting "Yes" to a raft of Liberal Democrat values. The referendum seems a golden opportunity to move from the language of "fightback" to clearly articulating the value of what we bring, at European, National and local levels. Yes, we will be pushing for a "yes" vote, but it is also worth thinking about what is needed to induce those who vote "yes" to Liberal Democrat values in the EU referendum to vote "yes" to them also in the next elections, whether those are European, national or local.

* Mark Argent was the Parliamentary candidate for North West Leicestershire