Mon, 20 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Mending our relationship with the EU is the first step to rejoining

(Credit: Marcus Harrison - geopolitics / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

Coming to terms with leaving the European Union means we must accept the harsh reality of what this means for our day-to-day lives, the economy, agriculture and labour market. I often wonder, how is Brexit viewed now by EU members, seven years after we voted to leave in 2016?

As president of the Liberal Democrats during that time, I was on the delegation to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE). Back then, much of the UK coverage about the EU was dominated by Brexit, including outrageous claims about how well the UK would fare outside the EU. However the ALDE Congress, with more than 40 pro-European member parties, showed another side: a passionate pro-European party that wanted to make the EU work well. Sister parties were bemused with Britain’s desire to leave and were shocked by the referendum result.  

Our Lib Dem MEPs in the ALDE delegation, led by Catherine Bearder, were effective and vociferous in the European parliament. They were supported by many other MEPs across the political spectrum.  

In December 2019 I was elected as one of the vice-presidents of ALDE, tasked with working alongside our sister parties across Europe. Universally, whether I am talking to party leaders, ALDE delegates or visiting sister party members, there is still disbelief that the UK chose to damage itself so much by leaving the European Union. However after the initial polite enquiries, talk of Brexit is left behind –  save reminding ourselves that the UK rejoining the EU is a two-way process, and relationships must be rebuilt carefully to ensure trust.  

There is still disbelief that the UK chose to damage itself so much by leaving the European Union

David Chalmers, chair of the Liberal Democrat Federal International Relations Committee, and I are working with our sister parties in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the European Economic Area (EEA), and those countries (including Ukraine) aspiring to accession. Understanding how each of these groupings manage their relationships with the EU is vital to making Ed Davey’s roadmap back to the EU work.  

One frequent conversation is around Horizon, Erasmus and other EU research projects. The Liberal Democrats have advocated since we left the EU that the UK must do all it can to re-join Horizon, so it is a relief that this month an agreement has been reached. We know Horizon third-party status is vital to our development in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – research and joining Copernicus will benefit that too.  

There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has changed European nations greatly. ALDE has four sister parties in Ukraine, including President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party Servant of the People, and Holos (Voice), led by the indefatigable Kira Rudik (fellow vice-president of ALDE). This has enabled us to work closely with Ukraine to provide support against Russia, as well as help build a case for more targeted military support. Recently, at a Fire Safety and Rescue APPG meeting, I asked the minister if the excellent military training support given to Ukraine’s forces might be extended to emergency services coping with the aftermath of bombings and minefields, giving new Ukrainian civil emergency responders the skills they need. I’m hoping for a positive response. 

The European parliament has elections next year. Security will feature strongly, but the core of the European vision – the single market, a strong economy, freedom of movement, and protecting human rights – will remain at the heart of what liberals and democrats stand for.  

Colleagues across Europe still regret the UK’s decision to leave the EU, but Europe now has other pressing issues that need its attention. Lib Dems will continue to make the case for rejoining, and part of that must be rebuilding our broken relationship with the EU. It has become increasingly clear, even to many of those who voted to leave, that the UK was a more prosperous country when we were a member. The Lib Dems are forging a path to get back there.

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