We all know the question looming over the UK this year is of its membership within the European Union; should we stay or should we go? The Prime Minister has offered to give his MPs the freedom to campaign for the UK to stay or for, what has become affectionately known as, Brexit. Labour…well, who knows what their position on the EU is? And the Liberal Democrats are the only clear, united party in Westminster, urging politicians and voters alike to keep Britain part of the European Union. The Lib Dems claim a liberal case for remaining in the EU; the claim that it would damage Britain if it were to leave, and along with other pro-Europe supporters they’re probably right. But as a Liberal Democrat myself, I can’t help but feel that there’s more to the liberal debate than the Lib Dems are letting on; why does wanting to leave the EU suddenly render someone less of a Liberal Democrat than someone campaigning to leave? I think we have to be pragmatic, perhaps a bit cynical, and understand the real debate surrounding the EU is between idealism (something the Lib Dems know all too well), and realism.
This is, I believe, the camp in which the Liberal Democrats find themselves when it comes to the EU debate. This doesn’t mean I think my party’s arguments for the EU are wrong, invalid or somehow hold less weight than those against; just I think they are idealistic.
I contacted Lib Dem leader Tim Farron and asked him what the liberal case for staying in Europe was. The exchange is below:
Now Tim Farron makes a good case and one that is shared by many pro-Europeans. Britain can achieve a lot as part of the European Union. With that, I don’t disagree. Britain’s standing on the world stage is improved greatly when we can negotiate on the same table as Germany, France etc. The idea of multiple nations coming together to achieve common goals, to establish a sense of commonality between European nations where all citizens have equal rights, where countries are equally committed to reducing the effects of climate change and where countries can work cooperatively without diplomatic constraints is absolutely at the heart of a world with liberalism at its centre.
It is a world and society to strive for, which motivates Liberal Democrats. As a party, of course we want to implement liberal principles wherever we can and keeping Britain in the EU ensures that as a country, we can play our part in shaping European policy, we can have a louder voice on the world stage, we can move and live freely in any EU state and perhaps most importantly to Lib Dems: contribute to the progression of a liberal society on this great continent of ours.
Fine. Nothing wrong with that. But it’s all idealistic. Yes, it’s great to have something to strive for, something to believe in. But at what cost? The EU costs us as a country approximately £24 million a day to be a member of. Is it worth it?
Here is where I think the campaign to leave the EU is stronger. It deals with realities, rather than speculative claims about jobs, business and a woolly desire to implement liberal ideals. As much as I disagree with Nigel Farrage’s party and policies, I have to admit that on Britain’s membership of the European Union, I think he’s onto something. Firstly there’s the membership fee: not quite the £55 million per day figure quoted by UKIP’s leader, but £24 million a day is still an enormous sum of money. A sum of money that could (and some argue should) be put towards education, the NHS, other vital public services that are being starved of much needed financial help. Here is a real argument, something that makes complete sense. Something that, when looked at, can be evaluated and measured; not some frivolous claim to sociological or political idealism.
Then there’s big one (for me). The UK, a sovereign state, should be in charge of making its own rules and laws. The Liberal Democrats are one of the only parties in the UK to stand tall and proud for devolution to local governments, for the eradication of centralised power, in turn giving local people the authority to improve their own communities. Yet, membership of the EU demands that we surrender a lot of our legislative powers to an unelected body in a country with which we share nothing, other than our geographical location within the European continent. I’m not anti-Europe. But I feel uncomfortable about having our legislative powers decided by an unelected group of people, who in all honesty, share nothing of British culture or British heritage. That doesn’t make me racist, xenophobic, prejudiced or illiberal.
It makes me British.
Leaving Europe won’t diminish our ability to trade with other nations; Norway is testament to that. As I made the point to Tim Farron, to cooperate with other countries does not demand political union. And I’m not going to mention immigration. It’s actually one of the things I like about the EU. I think immigration makes us stronger and actually makes our country far more liberal and tolerant than it would be without it.
And that’s the point here, surely? There are so many issues at a national and local level in Britain that the government needs to focus its efforts on. What’s the point in striving for a liberal Europe if Britain herself is tarnished by an unfair society? The benefits to Britain and British people must be prioritised here, no? I don’t think leaving the EU will be as damaging to the UK as is being said, however I also think the campaign to leave needs to be as open and honest about the negative effects of Brexit.
I’m not against Europe. I’m sceptical of it, perhaps even cynical. And I’m yet to make my mind up as to which I’ll vote in this year’s referendum. Do I want to vote to stay in the EU? Do I want to commit Britain to building a liberal Europe, a society which has liberal principles at its heart? Or do I want to vote to leave the EU? Do I want to give Britain back £24 million a day of funding to be put into our strained NHS, our failing schools or our infrastructure? Do I want to give Britain back its legislative powers; meaning Britain can eventually become the liberal society pro-European Lib Dems are claiming is the driving force for their ‘In’ campaign?
Do I choose idealistic liberalism? Do I choose realistic liberalism?
At the moment, I don’t have an answer. I’m waiting to be persuaded of one.