Wednesday, January 24, 2007

New European Vision

OK, first things first... The European Union needs to change.

The question is, how?

Last night the Estonian Prime Minister, Andrus Ansip, put forward a few ideas.

Firstly, and unlike most British political leaders, he made the point that the European Union as it stands has had a generally beneficial effect- "as a peacemaker, the Union has been of central importance". Economically the single market and enlargement have had a terrifically positive effect.

However, his vision of Europe is not one of mushy Federalism, what he called "the absorption of countries by the EU"; instead he spoke repeatedly of the integration of nation states. States working together in common interests, but not the creation of a National European identity, which he does not believe is possible anyway, still less desirable. Europe is a positive, but there are nevertheless limits to what Europe should try to do. Nevertheless, he also insisted that enlargement should still be pursued as a goal, and provided that the Copenhagen criteria are met in full, would welcome enlargement to Turkey and all other European states.

In fact this is not too far away from the actual British position, as opposed to the hysterical posturing of our political leaders. However I think that we can do better than this. The key freedom to work for in Europe is free trade. The breaking down of separate regulatory regimes, which acted as de facto trade barriers was the idea behind the Single European Act. Yet the bulk of this deregulation was concerned with goods. Services, and in particular financial services were not addressed. If a clear agenda is to be established for the European Union it must surely be focused on two areas that will generate the maximum economic benefits: the creation of a far more developed single European market for services, especially financial services. The second is to abolish the Common Agricultural Policy, and open up our markets to agricultural producers across the planet- especially in Africa.

Talking to Andrus Ansip afterwards, there was a great sense of disappointment with the position of the UK: "Always, it seems, that the UK is preparing to leave the room". Indeed, the Anti-European feeling is very strong in Britain. However there is a case to make to embrace reform and to put forward a positive agenda- which the British have failed to do since the late 1980s, when it was- ironically enough- Margaret Thatcher's government that fought the case for the single European market. Stuart Wheeler, the former Conservative donor, asked a question from the audience about the Court of Auditors failure to certify the EU accounts. I agree with him that the procedures and practices of the European Union need some pretty radical reform, however I do not believe that the EU is irredeemably unreformable. Like Prime Minister Ansip, I believe that we gain far more from our membership than we can ever gain from being outside.

The European Union is headed for a political crossroads: there are going to be new leaders in Britain and France. The opportunity for Britain is to put forward a new pro-active world view that will embrace free trade, free services and institutional reform inside the European Union.

UKIP have a clear position, but I think that it is British national interests to be able to directly influence the rules and regulations of the European Union- many of which, like Norway today- we would have to obey anyway. I can not support the UKIP position. The Conservatives pretend that the "threat" of British detachment or even exit from the EU will pursuade the other member states to support out views. Personally I regard this as self deluding, dishonest nonsense. Labour are passive in their dealings with the other member states.

The Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to speak out for a genuinely Liberal Europe. We are in favour of free trade and freer movement in services and agriculture, we are against a European super state and "ever closer union". We should speak out in favour of the limits to Europe, but also to point out the benefits we have and that we can gain from our co-operation with the other member states. Europe is most successful when it addresses functional and practical issues, rather than federalist symbolism. There is still much to acheive on the functionalist agenda- and much for Britain to gain from a re-energised functionalist programme- and one of the greatest gains would be renewed respect from our friends and partners, including Estonia.

9 comments:

Tristan said...

I agree fully (again).

The threat of withdrawing probably doesn't register or is perhaps even met with glee by some member states. The Conservatives are deluding themselves if they think this threat has any power.

Tom Papworth said...

I agree far too strongly to limit my comments to the answers column below your posting.

An essay is duly available at Liberal Polemic.

mel said...

The one argument that some may have not discussed is CAP reform and the role of France. Remember, CAP is more emotional to Paris than the rebate is to London. Would France think about re-working its relationship with the EU if 1) CAP is scrapped; 2) Romania's entry does not increase the influence of the French language in the EU; or 3) the EU moves more liberal?

Another query -- if the Holyrood elections turn the way we hope and the referendum succeeds, will UKIP (sic) and some Tories still ask for England's withdrawal?

Bishop Hill said...

Okay, you're going to win the arguments in Europe. The problem is that they seem to be going against liberals already - viz the CBI briefing I linked to on the last thread, in which it is claimed that we are facing the possibility of companies risking being sued in all EU countries in which they trade.

I've no idea if this is right, although from my (admittedly frothing-mouthed, eurosceptic) position the CBI takes a pretty moderate line on the EU. If it is correct, it's going to set back the single market by years. I hate to think what effect it will have on hopes for a market in services.

Do you know anything about it?

James said...

I think comparisons with Estonia are interesting but misleading. I am personally very supportive of Britain being in the EU, but the entire plus/minus score card is radically different for us as opposed to Estonia in relation to the European Union.

Estonia is very small country, still relatively poor, but making enormous strides in economic development for which it needs capital investment and foreign markets. It is occasionally menaced by a gigantic, nuclear armed neighbour with whom it shares a land border. Geopolitically, integration into a larger economic and security polity is therefore extremely desirable.

Britain is small island with a very large, fully capitalised and developed economy. It does not share a land border with anyone, and there are few countries that can realistically 'menace' it in foreign policy terms. Involvement in any alliances or system of integration is desirable, but far more negotiatable.

Those are the bland facts. I'm not sure if I really accept the President of Estonia wagging his finger at us. The balance of pros and cons facing Estonia in relation to integration into the EU is radically different to our own.

Anonymous said...

Cicero. will we hear from you on the Anglo-Polish point. Lepidus.

RK said...

An EU with the functionalist agenda you describe would indeed be a good thing and the LibDems can make all the points they like about it. Will it make any difference? I doubt it. You’re preaching to the choir in this country but it’s a rather alien message in the rest of old Europe. Take CAP for example, you have more chance of getting turkeys to vote for Christmas than you do getting the French to vote for abolishing the EU subsidy to their rural lifestyle.

The UK struggles to be a leader in Europe largely because our views are not widely shared and a LibDem government would fair no better. On some trade/federalist issues we may well agree with some members like Estonia but like James points out above most of these countries are big net winners from the EU pot (both in hard cash and in less tangible benefits) and therefore have a very different perspective on some fundamental issues.

Anonymous said...

Peacemaker. Umm Nato Cicero.....


Lepidus.

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