Speaking at the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference in Glasgow today, Fiona Hall, leader of the Liberal Democrat European Parliamentary Party, said it had always unambiguously been the party of In.
She told the Conference:
Not long ago I was at a coffee morning in the village hall just around the corner from where I live. I was sitting at a little table with the vicar and an elderly lady from the village. Suddenly she put down her cup and gave me a hard look. “Europe!” she said, and something inside me clicked automatically into Euro myth buster mode.
Was this going to be about the size of the budget and the bendiness of bananas? Or was she maybe cross with those blessed Brussels bureaucrats? “Europe” said the lady. “Just tell me one thing. If we’re all in Europe, why do I need a passport to go abroad?”
I’ll come back to this lady in a moment. But first I want to tell you about some other people Angelika Schneider and I met over the summer. And by the way, if you don’t know Angelika yet then get to know her now, because with your help she’s going to be the new North East Lib Dem MEP next May.
Angelika and I went to see Hitachi Rail Europe. Note the name. They have a plant under construction in County Durham which will bring 730 jobs directly and many thousands more in the supply chain.
Hitachi were happy to tell us that they’re in the UK not only to build the new intercity express, but also to pursue orders on the continent.
There are thousands of such companies across the land manufacturing, exporting, creating jobs. And they have a message for us. Just last week, in a poll of 400 companies employing over 1.5m people, eight out of 10 said they wanted Britain to stay part of the EU.
When I visit factories, the message face-to-face is even clearer: if the UK were to leave the European Union, it would be a disaster. A disaster: that is the word they use.
And that is the message that we, as Liberal Democrats, must take out to people on the doorstep. It’s about jobs, stupid. In Europe, in work. Out of Europe, out of work. Over 3m jobs are linked to our membership of the EU. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created by companies investing across the UK, because we have full access to the single market and a say over its rules.
If we left the European Union, would Japanese car manufacturers be likely to continue investing in Sunderland or Burnaston or Swindon? And let’s be clear – it is only us, the Liberal Democrats, who are fighting for these jobs. We realise the importance of being able to say to investors: “If you come to Britain, you can sell to Europe.” We are the party of In.
Here in Scotland, George Lyon MEP has been visiting the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, where global experts are doing world-leading research using stem cells, developing cures for major killer diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. This project exists because of European funding – both research money and £6.6m of European Regional Development funding.
The Scotch whisky industry, which employs 10,000 people, also has its eyes not just on the rest of Europe but on the rest of the world. Exports to countries outside the EU’s borders are booming thanks to EU muscle in international trade negotiations. Overall, British exports to South Korea, for example, have more than doubled since the EU-South Korea trade agreement came into force less than two years ago.
And it is Liberal Democrat MEPs and ministers who push and push to keep up the momentum on these EU trade agreements. We have our eye on ambitious further deals – with the US, with India, with Japan.
If the UK left the EU, beneficial trade agreements with more than 50 countries would be scrapped, causing huge damage to the British economy. That is why the Liberal Democrats are the party of In.
We know that for our economic security we are better together. This is how one well known figure put it recently:
‘Individual nations can – of course – adhere around ancient myths, blood-soaked memories, and opposition to others. But we have built something that also coheres around the values embodied in standing up for freedom and democracy around the globe.
‘An economy with no boundaries, borders, or customs, but instead a common system.
‘I believe that it is when you pull together, when you set aside difference, when you roll up your sleeves in a common endeavour, you achieve things that are truly worthwhile – even noble – which you could never accomplish on your own.’
I couldn’t agree more with those words, which are the words of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a speech last year in Edinburgh about Scottish independence.
Why is it that the Tories understand perfectly that we are better together when it’s a question of Scotland, but fail to see that exactly the same argument applies in terms of the UK and Europe?
If that is odd, then the Tory attitude to crime-fighting is even stranger. I find it bizarre that the alleged party of law and order tried to take the UK out of the European Arrest Warrant. The European Arrest Warrant that, since 2009, has extradited or deported more than 4,500 suspected criminals so they can face justice. Paedophiles, some of them, murderers, and terrorists, such as the ‘Tartan Terrorist’ Adam Busby, who threatened to bomb Argyll Arcade and the Hilton Hotel right here in Glasgow.
This is the European Arrest Warrant that our MEPs, Sarah Ludford and Graham Watson, fought so hard to put in place, and are now working to improve. Because criminals don’t stop at borders, as Bill Newton Dunn can certainly verify from his work on the Organised Crime committee.
Pollution doesn’t stop at borders either, which is why Chris Davies, Catherine Bearder and I have fought so hard for Europe-wide environmental solutions. Chris has had amazing success in bringing reform to the Common Fisheries Policy, which will finally put an end to the scourge of overfishing and to the scandal of throwing millions of dead fish back into the sea.
And on the defining issue of our age, the battle against climate change, how does anyone think that we will find a global solution unless European neighbours can first agree to curbing emissions in their own backyard?
That is why the Secretary of State Ed Davey is working so hard with like-minded ministers from other member states and with Lib Dem colleagues in the European Parliament to make sure that next year we Europeans set ourselves ambitious and binding 2030 targets for climate and energy. So that we can lead the world to a global climate change agreement in 2015.
Jobs, crime, the environment. These are all issues to do with security – not just security today, but security for our children and our children’s children. It is only as part of the wider European Union that we will enjoy secure lives and secure work within the UK. That is why the Liberal Democrats are the party of In.
But of course there are things we want to change at a European level. We’d like to get rid of Nigel Farage for a start. Actually I think we’ve succeeded on that one already. He is so rarely seen in the European Parliament that people now call him Nigel Mirage.
UKIP MEPs have the worst attendance records in the European Parliament. While Lib Dem MEPs are working to get the best deal for their constituents, Mr Mirage is down the pub. Talk about a waste of tax-payers’ money.
But there’s a very ugly far-right agenda behind that pint-and-fag bonhomie. Not just wanting the UK out of the EU. But also tax cuts for the rich. No aid for the world’s poor. Climate change doesn’t exist. Anti-gay rights. Women should clean behind the fridge. Not surprising then that the UKIP female MEPs have left the party.
Conference, Liberal Democrats are determined that some things at a European level must change. For a start, there is still work to do to complete the single market. Liberal Democrats want British businesses to enjoy total freedom to expand their operations across Europe in the digital and services sector. And that change is underway.
Last week, plans were announced for a single telecoms market. No more roaming charges. No more broken promises on internet speed. The UK has the biggest per-capita spend on e-commerce in the world, and around a third of all online cross-border trade in Europe goes through UK retailers. So this announcement is great news for online businesses and presages a big spurt in growth and jobs. Liberal Democrats in Brussels and Westminster will be working together to make sure those proposals become a reality.
Liberal Democrats also want reform of the European institutions to make them fit for the 21st century. One European issue on which Lib Dems and Tories find themselves in agreement is the need for a single seat for the European Parliament, to avoid the expensive and unnecessary monthly trek to Strasbourg.
And indeed a line in the Coalition Agreement promises action on this issue, but no discernible progress has yet been made. Lib Dem MEP Edward McMillan Scott is leading a vigorous campaign but the necessary treaty change is in the hands not of MEPs but of heads of government.
And indeed, if you scratch the surface, you will find that a lot of so-called European reform is actually a question of action by national governments and the reform of national practices. So when is the Chancellor going to sign off the UK’s accounts, including the UK's spending of European money? We won’t get a good report on the EU budget from the European Court of Auditors until the UK puts its own house in order.
Whenever we talk about reform, we need to show leadership, honesty, and open-mindedness. We need to listen to the experiences that people and businesses relate to us. What we propose must be evidence-based, even if that evidence is not always what we are expecting, and even if that evidence leads to unexpected conclusions that would scare the Daily Mail.
In fact, especially if they would scare the Daily Mail. Because if the Liberal Democrats won’t lead an open, honest debate about Europe, then who will?
Let me go back to the lady at the coffee morning. “We’re in the EU,” she said. “So why do I need a passport to go abroad?” I had to explain about Schengen, the travel area without internal borders. Only the UK and Ireland have opted-out of Schengen, and Ireland freely admits that it would join if the UK did. So the UK really is on its own on this one. And pays a high price for it. Only 7% of the 66m Chinese travellers who visit Europe each year bother to shell out for the additional visa they need to come to Britain.
And as a chief superintendant in my constituency explained to me recently, not being in Schengen makes it more difficult to get real-time information on criminals as they move from one country to another. His statement was a reminder that there are some sound, sensible arguments for engaging more, not less, with our European counterparts. We need to listen honestly to those arguments, not cover our ears like the other parties do.
We need to listen, for example, to the City bankers who say quietly to Sharon Bowles and Andrew Duff that London could lose its status as Europe’s financial capital if the UK keeps out of European banking and management rules.
You may have heard of the balance of competences review - David Cameron’s Domesday Book in which every aspect of the UK-EU relationship is being recorded with a quill pen. The first chapters are complete and lo! The story turns out to be a good one.
So good, in fact, that the publication of these positive European conclusions was delayed in July, until after the EU Referendum Bill had been debated in the Commons, and until the imminent arrival of a small royal personage could be relied upon to seize the headlines. That was a very good moment, you might say, to bury good news.
But the Liberal Democrats will not be silenced on the positives of being in Europe. It is only the Liberal Democrats who have the integrity to say out loud what others only whisper.
There is another reason too why we must not be silenced, but must keep on telling the full, true story. The UK’s relationship with the rest of the EU can never be static because the rest of the EU is changing too. It baffles me how the Tea Party Tories think the world stopped in 1973.
Of course the EU today is no longer the Common Market we joined. Europe has evolved and will continue to evolve. And those people who want to stay stuck in the past will find sooner or later that the train has simply left the station.
There will be stronger governance of the emerging fiscal union. How Britain fits into that more federal Europe will be a difficult issue to tackle. But it must be done, and only the Liberal Democrats can be relied upon to do the hard, honest thinking that is needed.
There’s nothing new about that. When it comes to Europe, Liberal Democrats have always unambiguously been the party of In. Back in the 1950s, it was the Liberals under Jo Grimond who alone called for the UK to join the founding members of the European Economic Community. But speaking out has never been more important than it is now.
I remember once when Paddy came up to Tyneside. We probably could have squeezed the local Lib Dems into the proverbial telephone box at that time. He said: “Never be afraid to be different. You will gain from it.” And he was right.
Liberal Democrats have faced opposition, even ridicule, on many issues in the past. When we opposed the war in Iraq, for example. But we stood up for what we knew was right. On May 22 next year we have the European elections.
Tim Farron, our Party President, who has campaigned so passionately on so many issues, will lead the European campaign. We know we’ve reached a cross-roads. Either we sleepwalk down the path to exit, or we stand up and fight to guarantee this country's place at the heart of Europe.
Strong in the EU, we can build a stronger economy, a fairer society and a greener future. So let us go out now and campaign with our heads held high, as the party of In.
Because we know that our country’s security and prosperity depends on Liberal Democrats winning this argument. And we will.
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