UK liberals, Tories find common ground in EU membership clash

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Leaders of the British liberals and conservatives in the European Parliament, meeting head-to-head at a Brussels debate, found common ground amid a philosophical clash over the UK's membership of the EU.

The Liberal Democrat Graham Watson and Conservative Martin Callanan on Thursday (11 April) debated whether UK’s EU membership should be renegotiated, just as Prime Minister David Cameron was due to fly to Berlin to press German Chancellor Angela Merkel for EU reform.

While Watson pushed for more Europe as a solution to its internal crises, Callanan demanded less, saying that the EU “will not succeed if it continues down a path of greater centralisation”.

The UK's position in Europe has threatened to cause further rifts in an already fragile coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

"It would be a mistake to brush aside Cameron's speech as parochial, as a demonstration of the UK's lack of commitment about the future of the EU," Callanan said. "We are positive about membership of a working EU. The speech was for the entire EU, not just Britain," he told the audience of policymakers, diplomats, and industry representatives.

Asked to explain the meaning of Cameron’s request for a “new settlement” with the EU, Callanan said: “We need to look at all of the common policy instruments and see how they can be improved.”

Watson agreed.

“But we do not need to renegotiate our membership [of the EU]”, the liberal MEP said. “We have a debate at the Council [of the European Union], like we do all the time.”

“The contention that the EU is unreformed is not true. It is reforming all the time. The European Commission is constantly recasting directives if they don’t work,” he said during the debate organised by the European Policy Centre. “The existing treaty gives us all the tools we need.”

“The core of the European Union is its values,” Watson said, adding that the only way for a country to renegotiate the terms of its EU membership would be to limit European powers. “Would you take away from human rights, climate change action.”

“I believe that David Cameron’s speech was aimed at an audience in the UK, not in the rest of the European Union, at traditionally conservative voters who may be tempted to vote UKIP,” he said.

The rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has become a headache for Cameron as it tries to woo conservative voters. Analysts say the prime minister’s current stance on the EU is an attempt to appease eurosceptic voters and backbenchers.

Callanan said if re-elected the conservative government would hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership, even if it could not secure a new settlement with Europe.

Crisis

Callanan said a “more flexible” EU would allow it to function better, as different countries could adopt EU regulation at different speeds while maintaining their international competitiveness, in line with Cameron’s position.

But for Watson, the creation of a single European identity and deeper integration - such as the completion of the single market and a more united monetary policy - would yield more political consensus and stimulate economic growth, respectively.

“Europe has offered its citizens a framework to deal with the challenges of globalisation,” he said. “Without the euro, Europe may not have survived the collapse of the Lehman Brothers,” he said, referring to the financial services firm. “The European Central Bank saved it by injecting billions of euros into the European economy”.

But for Callanan the “panic measures” carried out by the EU during the economic crisis, had eroded the democratic legitimacy of the European institutions, and stunted the continent’s competitiveness.

“David Cameron has launched the debate," he said.

Timeline: 
  • 2015: British general elections
  • 2016-2017: If Conservatives win election, UK in/out referendum on its membership of the EU
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