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.