The European Union, with a combined population of half a billion people, has achieved a great deal in the last 50 years, but it now needs to adapt its focus to the changing world of the 21st Century. The constant tinkering with the institutions of the EU over the last decades has resulted in new treaty after new treaty. This has created the appearance of an inward-looking Union which seems to many people to concentrate more on how it is structured rather than actually delivering for people.
Liberal Democrats believe this should change, with the European Union concentrating on delivering better policies that improve people lives – and national governments co-operating fully and being open with people on the benefits that European co-operation brings.
Rather than institutional change, the EU must now concentrate on issues like tackling climate change, taking on cross-border criminals and building economic prosperity for all Europeans.
Liberal Democrats don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. This is because Liberal Democrats believe that individual people, families and their communities know best about the things that affect them, so decisions should be taken by them, not by distant politicians and bureaucrats in Westminster or Brussels. That is why we insist that Europe does not act when national, regional or local action is more effective.
Liberal Democrats support the Lisbon Treaty as it adopts many of the institutional reforms we have been pressing for, including streamlining the EU institutions and giving the democratically elected European Parliament greater say. The Treaty would help the EU face global challenges such as climate change and address the issues which matter most to citizens including economic stability, cross-border crime, asylum and immigration, international terrorism and energy security. The Treaty will not enter force unless it is ratified by all EU countries. If that doesn’t happen, EU institutions should go on working under the rules of the current treaties, but an opportunity will have been lost to make the Union fit for purpose in the 21st century.
Despite a promise to put Britain at the heart of Europe, over the last 12 years Labour has lost its way, leaving Britain without much influence in many areas of EU business. Too often Labour has used EU rules as an excuse to enact burdensome and centralising regulations. An independent analysis by the Federation for Small Business argued that too many regulations had been “over-implemented”. Liberal Democrats would put an end to this so-called ”gold-plating” of EU rules.
The Conservatives and UKIP would make things even worse by isolating Britain. Turning our backs on our partners will achieve nothing for Britain.
Liberal Democrat MEPs work hard in Brussels to get the best deal for British people. We are naturally sceptical of big, powerful institutions in both politics and business. We want government at every level to be open, transparent and held to account for its actions. We take the same strict approach in Brussels as we do to government in Westminster, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast and in city and town halls up and down the country.
Liberal Democrats believe that shifting power away from central government towards local government, people and communities would be an effective way of delivering real improvements for local people. The EU should not act when national or regional action would be more effective. The British Government should take the same approach, devolving more power to regional and local government.
Liberal Democrats have argued for a referendum on whether Britain stays in or leaves the EU. We are the only party confident enough to put the pro-European case to the British people on the big issue facing us – and let the people decide. Britain will only win the case for a flexible, democratic Europe in Brussels if we settle our arguments at home on whether we should be part of the EU or not.
EU Money, Local Power: Although it is the EU and Westminster that legislate, it is often regional and local government that deliver the results on the ground. Far greater co-ordination is needed between local and regional government and EU bodies to ensure better work planning. Around a third of the EU budget is spent on regional structural and cohesion funds. For example Cornwall has received £350m from the EU over the past 6 years helping to fund tourism sites such as the Eden Project. We believe that local and regional authorities should have a greater say in the design and management of regional projects funded through the EU in order for local people to have a better say in how the money is spent. That is why we believe it is wrong for the Labour Government to block English regions bidding for extra funding.
Spend Better, Crack Down on Fraud: Liberal Democrats want to see tougher controls on EU countries and the EU itself for the management of EU money. Both countries and EU institutions should be named, shamed and fined for repeat offences – for example the Rural Payments Agency for England and Wales has a poor track record of using EU funds. The EU must also end unnecessary spending on the organisation of the EU institutions themselves. Scrapping the European Parliament’s monthly move to Strasbourg and basing it permanently in Brussels would save around €200m a year. We do not see the need, in the current context, for any significant growth in the budget’s size, nor the abolition of the British rebate. But the EU budget is in urgent need of wholesale reform so that money is spent only on the things the EU really needs to do and there is a more rational system for contributions by member states. This means in particular further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.
More Democracy, Stronger Parliaments: We want those who are elected, such as MEPs and MPs, to have greater power so that EU institutions can be held properly to account. That is why we support the Lisbon Treaty which gives extra powers for national parliaments to scrutinise and object to EU proposals. Because protecting our civil liberties is a priority for Liberal Democrats, we want the democratic European Parliament to have the power to scrutinise and amend EU justice and home affairs agreements such as on data protection, privacy and fundamental legal rights. We also seek greater involvement for ministers from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales at European meetings where there are clear advantages, such as farming and fisheries policy.
Holding British Ministers to Account: We want the UK Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament to hold Ministers to account for the positions they take in Europe. That is why we have argued strongly for opening up European meetings and more clarity over the legislation that has been agreed at the EU. In Westminster, the Prime Minister should explain his approach on issues in front of Parliament both before and after attending European Council meetings. There should be a regular European Affairs Question Time in Parliament so that MPs can question Ministers on the positions they take in Europe. The National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Scottish Parliament should hold similar sessions. We need to open up European meetings too. The Conservatives oppose the Lisbon treaty even though it would force the Council of Ministers to meet in public when it passes laws. The UK Government uses EU rules as an excuse to enact burdensome and centralising regulations. Liberal Democrats would put an end to this so- called ”gold-plating of EU rules.
Holding MEPs to Account: Liberal Democrat MEPs have been at the forefront of the campaign to reform the European Parliament. It was our MEPs who blew the whistle on the lack of openness and malpractice. Many of the reforms we have argued for will come into effect in July 2009. Liberal Democrats expect the highest standards of public service and honesty from all our representatives. That is why all Liberal Democrat MEPs and candidates have signed a binding Code of Conduct on the use of their parliamentary allowances. This includes making public the names of all staff, including family members, and strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the European Parliament rules. We expect all other MEPs to do the same. We will continue to work to reform MEPs expenses, ensure transparency and end the abuses that have undermined public confidence.