On first seeing my new grandson

Paddy Ashdown reflects on war, peace and the millennium as he visits France for a family occasion
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The Independent Online
Last week, my first grandchild was born. This weekend, my wife and I escaped the election and went over to France to see our grandson for the first time. It was one of the happiest moments of our life.

Fifty-five years ago, the city where my daughter, her French husband and now my grandson live, was under German occupation. Looking at him, it was impossible not to think about the sort of world he will grow up in - the sort of Europe, in particular. Millions of men and women have died in Europe over the past century as our nations have waged war on each other. Reflecting on all that death and destruction, I prayed that, for my grandson, Europe's next century would be different. The European Union was born in the ashes of those wars when a new generation of statesmen set out to build a different future for our small, crowded continent.

You cannot go abroad and be unaware of the differences between European nations. But that diversity is one of Europe's great strengths. I do not want a European superstate in which those differences are crushed. But I do want sensible cooperation with our European partners to widen opportunities for the British people, and above all, to maintain peace in Europe.

Today, there is a paradox. On the one hand the benefits of our European membership are greater than ever. On the other hand, anti-European feeling in Britain is stronger, and relations with our partners more strained, than ever.

The benefits range from security to better environmental protection and regional development; from freer movement within Europe to new opportunities for individuals within Europe. The single market of 370 million consumers has created huge opportunities for British business. By working with our partners, we were able to open up new markets for British business in the last Gatt round that would have been impossible had we been negotiating alone. In an increasingly global economy, working together with our European partners is the only way to promote Britain's national interests.

So given all the benefits, why the hostility to Europe? I believe there are four reasons. Pro-Europeans have been too quiet about the benefits of Europe. Instead of harnessing the natural majority in Parliament in favour of sensible European co-operation, John Major has tried - unsuccessfully - to appease the anti-Europeans in his own party. Too little has been done to address the obvious failings of the European Union. And British politicians have failed to take the British people with them.

These failures of leadership mean that there is a massive job to be done to rebuild popular support for a sensible European policy. We need to concentrate on making the most of the practical benefits of European co-operation, especially for British businesses and British jobs, and we need to rebuild the key European alliances on which the effective promotion of our national interests depend.

We need also to reform the EU to make Europe work better. It must be decentralised, democratic and diverse; more open; less bossy and fussy. It must stay out of areas in which it does not need to be involved yet be stronger and more effective where it needs to be - for example, in enforcing the rules of the single market. Above all it needs to scrap and replace policies that are clearly failing, such as the Common Fisheries Policy.

Finally, we need to give people a real say in Europe's future, so that we can build a "People's Europe" instead of the "Politician's Europe" we have at the moment. That is why Liberal Democrats have long been committed to a referendum on any further constitutional change in our relations with Europe, including the single currency. When people talk about free votes, that is the free vote that really matters - the free vote of the British people.

I was one of the few MPs to support a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, back in 1991. At the time, John Major was totally opposed to such a referendum, as were most MPs in both other parties. But I believe that if we had had such a referendum, we would have been spared the shambles of the past five years.

Britain's national interests require strong leadership of a strong Britain in a strong Europe. That, in turn, requires popular support for any further constitutional change through a referendum. That is what the Liberal Democrats guarantee.