The Federal Union committee, at its meeting on 12 September, discussed the record of the coalition government on Europe and in particular the influence of the Liberal Democrats. The outcome of the general election in 2010, with the Conservatives the largest party but 20 seats short of a majority, had left no clear winner. A Lib Dem/Labour coalition could not have assembled enough seats to form a majority in the House of Commons, which left the options of a Conservative minority government, with a confidence and supply agreement with the Liberal Democrats, or a full-blown coalition. The Lib Dems chose the latter.
Compared with the six pledges made by David Cameron in November 2009 in the speech where he dropped his commitment to a referendum on the Lisbon treaty (because that treaty had been ratified and was coming into force), how have the policies of the coalition government fallen short?
The first two of his six pledges – the requirement that any future pooling of sovereignty within the EU be approved by a referendum, and the obligation to use primary legislation to enact the use of any of the passerelle clauses in the Lisbon treaty – are in law in the EU act. The third pledge, the assertion that parliament is sovereign rather than the European Union, always a rather strange notion in any case, is also now the law of the land.
Concerning two further pledges, seeking opt-outs from the Charter of Fundamental Rights and from EU social and employment policy, there has been no movement so far. But to establish such opt-outs would require careful and delicate rewording of the EU treaties in agreement with the other member states, and would be both controversial and difficult to achieve, if even it were possible at all. Given the centrality of human rights and the single market to the conception of the EU as understood in most of the other member states, there is genuine doubt that these two pledges could ever be fulfilled with their agreement.
The last pledge, an opt-out from criminal justice measures, is being honoured, although incompletely, using the procedures currently laid down in the Lisbon treaty. There will come a moment when the UK has to decide whether to withdraw from Europol or to accept the jurisdiction over Europol of the ECJ. On that the decision, the coalition agreement is silent.
It is not obvious, therefore, that the Conservatives are achieving much less in their European policy than they had originally intended. That they are achieving less in government than their Eurosceptic backbenchers had hoped is due to the facts of British membership of the EU (it is the result of a complex negotiation requiring unanimous agreement among 27 member states) which cannot readily and unilaterally be altered. The role of the Liberal Democrats in restraining Conservative euroscepticism looks limited.
It is necessary to remember that the Liberal Democrats were not forced to go into coalition with the Conservatives. The option of a Conservative minority government was real, but rejected. Had that option been chosen by the Liberal Democrats, they would have been in a position to block some of the more offensive aspects of the Conservatives’ potential European policy by denying them a majority in the House of Commons. This might have included the excessive and cumbersome commitment to referendums on every aspect of EU sovereignty pooling, and the Conservatives’ desire to quit Europol.
Liberal Democrats on the opposition benches would also be free to speak clearly and accurately about the options being considered by the other EU member states for a resolution of the financial crisis in some of the member states. Britain is marginalised at present, by choice, which is bad; worse is to deny that Britain is marginalised.
Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander, in an interview with the New Statesman, was forced into the absurd description of the current position:
“We’ve accepted that the eurozone is going to have to go for greater fiscal integration. That doesn’t mean that Britain hangs back from its role as a leading member of the wider EU.”
The whole notion of being a “leading member of the wider EU” is nonsense. Which football team prides itself on being top of the second division? Which actor is happy to win the Tony award for best understudy? This is increasingly the reality of Britain in the EU today, and the party which is traditionally the strongest voice for pro-Europeanism can no longer say so.