Nick Clegg: True believers should not be afraid to criticise Europe

Lib Dems should not be abashed to highlight areas in which we advocate reform
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The Independent Online

The British debate about Europe has long been disfigured by intellectual fundamentalism. On no other issue of public policy are positions quite as polarised or as vitriolically expressed. The wording used to categorise peoples' views is crude and rigid: you are either "anti-European" or "pro-European".

The British debate about Europe has long been disfigured by intellectual fundamentalism. On no other issue of public policy are positions quite as polarised or as vitriolically expressed. The wording used to categorise peoples' views is crude and rigid: you are either "anti-European" or "pro-European".

The public is subject to an unremitting diet of press misinformation about the EU. The Government, led by arguably the most instinctive pro-European Prime Minister in a generation, has lost its way. A failure of nerve on the single currency, internal dissent between Blair and Brown, and a strategic blunder in Iraq, have left New Labour's promise of leadership in Europe in tatters.

Making matters worse, the European Union itself has experienced a prolonged period of turbulence. The bitter divisions about Iraq, about a new EU Constitution, exacerbated by the challenges of a dramatic expansion in the EU's membership and persistent institutional shortcomings, have conspired to make the EU a bewildering and unattractive proposition to voters.

The danger of such fundamentalism to pro-Europeans is that they are compelled to join the argument in extremist terms in order to be heard.

Since the critics of the European Union usually express their views in highly emotional terms - "superstate", "conspiracy", "bureaucratic monster" etc - it is difficult to resist the temptation to return fire in similar terms.

The result is a debate which is both hysterical in tone and dishonest in content. A false choice is presented to the public: one of two extremes in which an almost theological choice needs to be made about whether you are "for" or "against" Britain's entanglement with Europe.

For years now opinion polls have told the same story about public attitudes in Britain towards the EU. While the minority with fixed, hardline, views against the EU is larger than the minority with fixed, hardline views in support of the EU, the vast majority of the electorate is both confused and undecided on the big European questions. For this great swath of the British electorate, Europe is not an issue of overriding importance, and has become an area in which they naturally reflect the sceptical twist of much media and political comment, but on which their opinions are essentially fluid.

It is to this pivotal audience that the Liberal Democrats must address themselves. Importantly, such opinion is rightly distrustful of claims that the European Union is either all good or all bad. Most people most of the time will accept that the EU, much like any other political endeavour, has virtues and vices. For this reason, it is essential that Liberal Democrats demonstrate that being pro-European is perfectly compatible with the legitimate doubts and quibbles that many people harbour about the EU.

Someone who has general reservations about, say, the transparency of EU decision making, or the impact of EU regulation, or the effects of the Common Agricultural Policy, must be encouraged to believe that their views are consistent with a generally positive approach to the EU.

For years, Liberal Democrat manifestos have placed great emphasis on institutional and policy reform in the European Union. Liberal MEPs were at the forefront of the pressure which led to the resignation of the European Commission in 1999 because of administrative mismanagement. Liberal Democrats have been the fiercest critics of the secretive manner in which Government Ministers stitch up deals in the Council of Ministers . The party's MEPs have consistently voted against unduly interventionist EU legislation, and remain trenchant in their condemnation of the Common Agricultural Policy.

None of this is a denial of the party's core pro-European identity. The genius of the European Union remains as valid today as in the 1950s: pooling sovereignty to deal with supranational challenges. from environmental degradation to international crime,allows nation states to improve the world around them in ways they couldn't possibly achieve on their own. But such pooled sovereignty must always be carefully targeted at those areas where EU action is indispensable, and must be exercised with maximum transparency and accountability.

Liberal Democrats, then, must urgently explain, and explain again, that to be pro-European does not require an abandonment of basic critical faculties. We should not be abashed in highlighting those areas in which we advocate far-reaching reform, nor timid in making the case for a more streamlined accountable approach to EU lawmaking.

A true pro-European stance should be creative, innovative and bold in proposing reforms to the way in which European integration is pursued. It represents the height of political pessimism to believe that pro-Europeans must automatically cede all ground on the reform and improvement of the EU to anti-Europeans.

The writer, a former Lib Dem MEP, is prospective parliamentary candidate for Sheffield Hallam

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