Nick Clegg’s Shiny New Leadership and the European Question

This is a big topic which I could not fit into my lost blog entry on
Nick Cleg, as an anonymous reader has asked for that to be covered,
that’s what I’m doing here.

One reason I did not try to fit the Europe issue in is that Clegg’s
early days leadership on this issue has been dominated by a mess left
over from the brief leadership of his predecessor Menzies Campbell.
Campbell himself had been left with an awkward situation with regard to
the collapse of the Lisbon Constitution. Rjection of this proposed
‘Constitution’ for the EU was rejected by referendum in France and the
Netherlands. The Liberal Democrats, like all UK parties had supported
a referendum on agreeing to the constitution. The idea of a
constitution was a premature and a mess, but I cannot go into that here.

The result of the referendum defeats was agreement to replace the
Lisbon Constitution with the Lisbon Treaty, which adds to previous
treaties instead of rolling all previous ones up with new proposals in
a supposed foundational document for the EU (again premature and a
mess). The Treaty leaves out some symbolic proposals such as an EU
flag and anthem. Despite the very negative reaction from Eurosceptics,
the Lisbon provisions strengthen the role of the Council of Minsters
which is the part of the EU structure which gives a direct role ot
national governments. There are also proposals for more involvement by
national parliaments in scrutinising legislation. As more areas come
under majority voting, instead of unanimity, the Eurosceptic
objections refer to something real, but these changes are coming in a
manner that is as adapted to recognition to national governments and
parliaments as is possible.

Campbell’s reaction to the move from Constitution to Treaty was to propose a referendum on membership of the EU. The Labour government declared that a referendum was now unnecessary, the Conservative party proposed a referendum on the Treaty.

Campbell’s policy appears to have merged to splits in the Liberal Democrats between: the most Brussels orientated tendency which wishes to avoid referenda which might interrupt the integration process; and a relatively Eurosceptic tendency with its strongest roots in agricultural and fishing constituencies where EU management of fishing and agriculture is unpopular EU management of agriculture is extremely unpopular with everyone in Britain, but in some areas it is a dominant. The compromise between Brussels is always right and the EU needs reigning in tendencies was dealt with by a vote on membership, which might be considered more winnable This also represents a compromise between different views on the role of referenda in the British political system. In all the debate about referenda on the EU, no one has brought up the issue of a proper method of deciding when a referendum should be used. Those demanding a referendum on Lisbon have not demanded the same for major recent changes to the British system, such as major changes in the composition of the House of Lords.

Liberal Democrat MPs were split three ways on the issue when it came to a vote in Parliament: abstain, vote for a referendum on Lisbon, vote for a referendum on membership. Clegg imposed a three line whip (a definite instruction to vote) on the issue, which meant abstaining as the Speaker did not accept the party’s amendment to government legislation. Some voted against which led to three ‘shadow ministers’ being sacked.

Clegg tried to make the best of the situation by criticising the parliamentary procedures which prevented a vote on his amendement and led a walk out of MPs.

What next? That depends first on whether the Lisbon Treaty will get past further barriers, I believe that there will be a referendum in Ireland but probably not in Denmark, both countries where constitutioanl chnages can trigger referenda but in different ways. ıf Ireland votes against, the Treaty will still probably survive with Irish opt outs (as wehn Danes voted against the Maastricht Treaty). I would not like to predict what will come in the way of proposals for EU integration, but they will be coming. It will be a few years before a new treaty comes up, so Clegg can and should concentrate on the issue of deregulated markets within Europe and free trade for Europe, which is an agenda being pursued by the President of the Commission, sort of the head of government for the EU. We need to see how the new changes work: a longer term President of the Council and an EU ‘Foreign Minister’. These aspects could jus tbe another failure to find politcal structure for the long term. The EU needs clear structures and clear lines of accountability, there is some way to go. We also need to see if parliamentary scrutiny means much in practice. For now, the EU needs to focus its exiting strucutres and institutions on deregulation, free trade and climate change. Progress in these fields is maybe the necessary conditition for strengthening the political credibilit yof the Eu in Europe. I bleive Clegg will probably follow tha tline. I also beleive tha the will avoid the damging confrontations at party conference between MEPs and the party leadership over the EU budget, such a thing ahppened under Kennedy’s leadership because he was untalented and downright lazy with regard to handling party divisions. Campbell and Cleghg have shown that the anti-conformist party conference can be managed it the right ways are found of defusing confrontation. Political proposals on the future of the EU have to wait and I’m sure Clegg recognises that.

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