London Calling 4: Beyond Brexit – the challenge for Liberals

Blog Post by Andrew Duff, former LibDem MEP

London Calling is the new column of the European Liberal Forum aimed at bridging the Channel.

Whatever the outcome of the current negotiations between the UK and the European Union, it is unlikely to be a long-term settlement. If there is no agreement at all in place before the end of 2020 the immediate trading conditions, collapsing on to WTO rules, will be costly and shambolic, and the political consequences dark. The more likely outcome is a minimal trade agreement with a lot of loose ends and much congestion at ports. The main worry will be how to manage years of potential divergence across the whole range of economic, political and security issues.

One hopes that the EU will not be so overcome by its British problem that it cannot make intelligent strategic decisions in its own interest. The Union’s task in response to the coronavirus pandemic must be to deepen integration along federal lines, requiring a common fiscal policy to boost economic recovery. In this context, Brexit helps. Having rid itself of the UK as a member state, federal thinking is beginning to be possible at the highest level of EU leadership. European Liberal forces should marshal themselves at the head of federalist campaigning. Present divisions within ALDE and Renew Europe about the federal prospectus should not be ducked: plenty of political parties are conservative and eurosceptic, but there are precious few progressive parties ready to press forward in the federal direction presaged by Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman 70 years ago.

Contrition

So what should the British Liberal Democrats now do, stung with defeat, faced with their country’s unforced self-isolation? The party must not duck its share of responsibility for Brexit. Not since Paddy Ashdown retired in 1999 have the Lib Dems had a truly bold pro-European leader. In coalition with the Tories, the Lib Dems supported the introduction of unilateral British referendums on all future EU treaties. They voted for holding David Cameron’s In/Out referendum and promised to respect its result. In 2018-19, when they could have helped to deliver a closer post-Brexit partnership with the EU, they toyed with the idea of a second referendum — and got Boris Johnson. The Lib Dems, like everyone else in Britain, now have to live with the consequences of the badly executed blunder of Brexit.

In the short term, the Lib Dems should continue to make the case for maintaining the highest possible degree of regulatory alignment with the EU, enshrined in a dynamic association agreement aimed at the steady re-convergence of ties and interests. Nobody can contemplate new accession negotiations unless and until trust is restored between London and Brussels. As a first step, the British will have to build a bipartisan approach at home to their future European policy. Such strategic stability is unlikely to be achieved without electoral reform for the House of Commons. Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, may well adopt a system of proportional representation as part of his programme for the next election (alas, not scheduled until 2024).

Another confidence-building measure would be to renew the constitutional settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all grounded in closer partnership with the EU. Here, as well as with parliamentary reform, the Lib Dems have a better track record. Britain is a multicultural country that is growing more ethnically and regionally diverse: it needs radically reformed political institutions to reflect those trends.

Strengthening EU governance

Britain must be more honest about its history. The obsession with 1940 is unhelpful. More attention should be paid to the opportunity it missed in 1950 to become a founder member of the European Union. Today, even more than back then, the global Anglosphere is a mirage. Britain cannot isolate itself from continental power politics. The UK is inextricably interdependent with its mainland European neighbours. It is firmly in the British interest that the EU prospers, delivers security and projects its values on the world stage. That happy mission can only be achieved through a continuing process of EU reform — a process towards which the UK can choose either to hinder or help.

One vehicle for EU reform should be the Conference on the Future of Europe, which offers the Union the chance to put in place the effective democratic government it so sorely lacks at present. Member states which balk at the federal option can be parked in confederal arrangements, but they must not be permitted to hold the EU back from its mission of ever closer union.

Europe’s Liberals, not excluding British Liberals, must think federally and show Europe the way forward.

Andrew Duff was Vice-President of the UK Liberal Democrats 1994-97 and MEP 1999-2014. He is a former president of the Union of European Federalists (UEF) and of the Spinelli Group. He tweets @AndrewDuffEU

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