Leading Article: Caution tempers Euro-evangelism

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Liberal Democrats - historically Britain's most pro-European party - stake out a more sceptical position, times have certainly changed. These zealous supporters of the European dream have noted the disenchantment with the Union's institutions that is evident in Britain and its partner states.

Whereas the party once preached enthusiastically in favour of a federalist Euro-utopia, its policy document published yesterday tempers that evangelism. Cautious about a European army, it says that the Government must retain control over British forces. It calls for the devolution of decision-making, right down to local authority level. European institutions, says the document, should confine themselves to big issues and let other layers of government deal with the rest.

The revision of Lib Dem policy could be put down to the pragmatic shift of a party whose chief ambition in June's European elections will be to oust incumbent Conservatives in southern England (where voters with defence-dependent jobs may also be relieved by the party's abandonment of its old pledge to cut military spending by half).

This document will not steal the clothes of Tory Euro-sceptics, but it leaves the party less exposed to allegations of over-deference to the Brussels bureaucracy. It is another example of how European politicians are being forced to reflect popular disillusionment with the European Union, post-Maastricht. The same phenomenon could be seen at tetchy negotiations that began yesterday in Brussels over extending membership to Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

The political leaderships of these countries favour admission, but their electorates are at best indifferent, at worst hostile. The Norwegians in particular - content with their oil, defensive about their whaling and jealously guarding their agricultural subsidies - could swing either way. The Swedes worry about losing democratic accountability and the Austrians fret about the environmental impact of EU lorries crossing the country.

Britain, which seems likely to enjoy faster economic growth than its continental partners during the next few years, may find the public increasingly disdainful of the European Union. The Liberal Democrats remain strongly pro-European whereas, as the document rightly points out, the Labour Party as well as the Conservatives are bitterly divided on the subject. Yet events have clearly forced even the Lib Dems to temper that enthusiasm to keep in step with an increasingly sceptical British public.

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