The Liberal Democrats are regularly presented as the most “pro-European” of the UK’s main political parties. Party leader Nick Clegg’s appearance in TV debates on European issues with Nigel Farage may not have been well received by voters, but was welcomed by party activists. The party’s manifesto commits to maintaining Britain’s membership of the EU, and sets out its reasons for doing so – many of which we’ve heard before.
Yet the Liberal Democrats manifesto struggles to present support for the EU in a positive way: it does so through emphasising “reform”. This means that even the UK’s most pro-European party are more critical of the EU than you might think. The Liberal Democrats do not offer voters a positive vision of the EU, but argue that it is better to be included than left out.
Prosperity and security
The manifesto justifies EU membership as a way for the UK to “project influence in the world”. Economic motives are most important for the Liberal Democrats. The party supports the EU on the basis that it provides millions of jobs, vital trade and a way to negotiate trade deals with global players such as the USA and China.
This manifesto continues earlier arguments that the EU helps to defend the UK against “global challenges” including climate change, security threats, cross border crime and terrorism. The difficulty, the Liberal Democrats argue, is that the EU is needs to be modernised and reformed.
A reformed EU
As “the party of reform”, the Liberal Democrats claim credit for cutting the EU budget by £30 billion. Avid fact checkers have argued that this should be rephrased to state that EU budget ceiling was cut, and that this might not lead to a significant fall in the UK’s contributions. The party also claims credit for working to reform the Common Fisheries Policy by ending the discarding of unusable fish.
These may be important achievements, but those seeking a well-developed programme of reforms for the EU will be disappointed. The Liberal Democrats pledge that if they govern again, they will boost British exports to the EU and support the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the USA. Support for the latter is dependent on upholding EU consumer and environmental standards.
Most of the European policy commitments in this manifesto echo longstanding themes, including scrapping of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, cutting funding for the Common Agricultural Policy and increasing the power of national parliaments to scrutinise EU decision making. Such decisions rest on the actions of other governments and EU officials, and the Liberal Democrats will have to work hard to overcome opposition if they are to deliver such changes.
The Liberal Democrats have been forced to defend themselves against accusations that they have made u-turns to avoid holding referendums on European issues in the past. However, the party claims credit for passing the 2011 European Act which provides a “referendum lock”. This requires that future EU treaties are subject to a referendum. It is therefore difficult for the Liberal Democrats to avoid a referendum in the long term, and the manifesto pledges to campaign in favour of staying in the EU when the time comes.
If reports are accurate, then this may be sooner than expected. Nick Clegg may be preparing to sacrifice opposition to a referendum before the next EU treaty, as part of coalition negotiations with the Conservative Party. The party leadership may face internal opposition to such a move. The manifesto does not, however, rule out such a deal.