The Liberal Democrats will forge a path for Britain to rejoin the EU
I’ve never been a great one for the concept of a national psychology. It goes against the grain of anybody with a tinge of liberalism that there is a collective view of some 60 million individuals.
That we are somehow one giant organism. But the Brexit saga has proved me wrong. It’s now over seven years since the Brexit vote, 10 since David Cameron’s fatal decision to include it in the Tories’ 2015 manifesto. Countless more since the Tory anti-EU wing launched its staggeringly successful reverse take-over of its parliamentary party.
For me as a Lib Dem, and former MEP, it was always a frustration that the European Union never rated far from the bottom of the top 10 issues voters actually noticed. We couldn’t even persuade ourselves that it was worth campaigning on. The NHS, economy, housing, education and the rest always took pride of place.
Europe remains at the core of the party’s international DNA
So, in 2016 the whole of British society was told by Parliament to vote on something that, frankly, it wasn’t much interested in.
Brexit won, but by the narrowest of margins. As one of my local Tory MPs confided in me – the right decision but the worst of outcomes. It left families, friends, work colleagues, and our nation deeply and antagonistically divided.
After the initial shock for both sides, the mutual recriminations, and the chaos of the negotiations, the 2019 election marked a point when the nation collectively decided enough was enough. Remainers gave up remoning, Brexiteers silently crossed their fingers, and the nation went into a period of part catharsis, part denial. Outside of the Twittersphere Brexit became a no-go area. Until now.
But where the media and commentariat have started naming and questioning our EU divorce, parliamentary politics still appears in denial. Led for the first time by a real and long-time Brexit believer, the Conservatives have ironically started to recalibrate. Border controls on incoming EU goods remain absent, the UK quality mark is effectively shelved, pointless confrontation with the EU has ended, and the Retained EU Law Act largely neutralised. The face of reality.
It is ironic that it was a senior Tory, Tobias Ellwood, who publicly advocated for the UK to rejoin the single market, first in an op-ed for The House magazine last year. He was of course quickly shouted down by the Tory press and his-own colleagues.
It is the Labour Party that is stuck in its contradictions – nervous of offending red wall seats for a second time, sitting on the fence, and threatening to make Brexit work better than the Tories. It’s a story that even its members and parliamentarians hardly buy.
For the Lib Dems, Europe remains at the core of the party’s international DNA. To some of our members’ frustration, there is no outright commitment to book the Eurostar the day after the election, sit down opposite Ursula von der Leyen, and do the deal. But rejoining is our longer-term goal. We have a clear pathway to a much closer and productive relationship through engagement with EU agencies and programmes, and to a reconnection with the single market.
Will that pathway to renewed EU membership be a condition of any Lib Dem coalition? Closer relations with the EU must surely be. The next parliament is perhaps still too early for membership. Reforming our broken political system, not least through a properly representative voting system, must be an even greater priority. At least we share that with Labour’s membership.
So, as the UK recovers from its referendum-induced national trauma, and when the body politic decides to lead rather than just follow, our country’s return to power and influence in our home continent must surely follow.
Lord Teverson, Liberal democrat peer and former MEP
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