Memorandum submitted by the Liberal Democrat
1. This submission to the Committee is from
the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG). LDEG is an Associated
Organisation of the Liberal Democrats. It is unashamedly a pro-European
organisation, but shares its party's view that the British relationship
with Europe must be founded on the commitment of citizens rather
than merely the convenience of politicians.
2. LDEG claims no special right to influence
the UK's attitude to Europe. However, its members are drawn from
Britain's third largest political party and all have a profound
commitment to spreading a positive message about Britain's membership
within the European Union. If the national debate on Europe cannot
involve and inspire the members of LDEG (and, equally, people
with the same degree of commitment but different and opposite
views), then it will surely fail.
3. The authors of this paper have read all
the questions posed by the Committee but will frame their submission
as an answer only to the last: "How should the debate on
the future of Europe be conducted, eg should there be a convention,
and if so, how could it be made representative and how should
4. Whatever the rights and wrongs of British
membership of the European Union, the British people are not informed
enough about it. The edition of Eurobarometer published in spring
2001 reports that the British consider themselves to be the least
well-informed about the European Union.
5. In this respect, at least, the House
of Commons represents the nation. Research by Chris Davies MEP
showed that of some 40,000 questions asked in the House of Commons
in the 1999-2000 session, only 79 were about business in the Council
MPs have a particular opportunity to obtain information and exert
influence: they have yet to take it.
6. The UK cannot expect to play its full
role in Europewhatever that role might bein the
absence of information. Our first conclusion therefore is that
the government has a serious responsibility to provide information
about the EU to the public. In the current year, the Inland Revenue
is spending £5.5 million to promote the on-line self-assessment
of income tax. The question of the UK's relationship with Europe
is surely at least as important as this.
7. Promotion of this issue should use both
traditional means of advertising and mass communication as well
as working through NGOs and organisations of civil society. The
objective of this exercise is not only to communicate the facts
about British membership of the EU but also to accumulate the
opinions of citizens on what should be done next. The future of
the EU rests not only on amendments to the treaties but also on
the support and understanding of the people.
8. The decision-making processes of the
EU are obscure to many of the so-called experts, and far removed
from the consciousness of most electors in the UK. Not only should
the Council meet in public, but the mechanism should exist to
overcome the tendency of politicians of all member states to avoid
their own responsibility in the decision-making process, claiming
credit for any decision which could be interpreted as favourable
to their narrow national interest, and avoiding their participation
in decisions which might be seen to be politically disadvantageous
in the short-term. The latter are all too often portrayed as having
been imposed by "Brussels", when in reality they are
part of the normal operations of the Council.
9. To address the question of a convention,
the answer of LDEG is an unequivocal yes. The experience of the
convention that led to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms
was wholly positive. Andrew Duff MEP, a member of the convention,
observed that "The Convention witnessed a genuine refinement
of point of view among the many participants, and a clarification
of the purpose of the Charter. A new, wide consensus was born
concerning the role of fundamental rights in the process of European
10. Within the 15 member states of the EU
(and among the thirteen applicant states) there are many different
opinions regarding the future of Europe. A convention provides
an opportunity for them to be expressed rather than suppressed.
11. The convention would naturally include
representatives from every member state but it should also incorporate
representatives from the applicant states. It is their Union,
too, that the convention will be discussing.
12. Participants should be drawn from elected
national governments and parliaments, as well as from the European
Parliament and from regional and local government. There should
also be some means of consulting with the spectrum of civil society.
There is more to politics than party politics.
13. A convention will allow the opportunity
for a debate of higher quality. Summits are no longer, if they
ever were, the best way to take the most important decisions about
the future of Europe. Haggling late at night when everyone is
too tired to think straight is hardly the best way to do business.
The prime minister conceded at the conclusion of the Nice summit
that the working methods had to change. The Hague summit on climate
change broke down in precisely such circumstances. The EU's Amsterdam
treaty was ratified with errors that sleep-deprived officials
14. Lastly, the European convention should
be matched by an equivalent exercise within the UK. The government
should provide support for debates held regionally and locally
throughout the country, perhaps to be held under the auspices
of local authorities. The Scottish Parliament is to consult regular
on European matters with the wider civil society, with the working
title of the Scottish European Forum.
15. An exercise of this sort is underway
in Slovakia at the moment. The National Convention on the European
Future of Slovakia brings together figures from politics, business
and civil society. This is an imaginative initiative which will
help spread awareness of the realities of the European Union and
lead to a more informed public debate. There is no reason why
the Slovaks can discuss Europe in a way that the British cannot.
16. If the government really wants to change
the nature of the debate about Europe in Britain, it could blaze
a new trail in public debate on the European Union. Despite the
best efforts of Mr Keith Vaz, when he was Minister for Europe,
his bus tours did not yet amount to this.
17. The 2004 process provides an opportunity
to revitalise the debate about Britain's relationship with Europe.
It has to be taken out of London SW1 and out of the hands of the
political class. Any relationship between the UK and its European
neighbours can only survive if it is based on the support and
understanding of the British people. A European convention on
the future of the EU should be matched by equivalent activities
at regional and local level. This debate is important, and LDEG
stands ready to play its part.
3 October 2001