Anthony Browne is former Brussels correspondent of the Times.
There is probably no other issue that splits the coalition as much as Europe: one side is Eurosceptic, the other is driven by an EU passion. The strategy until now has been to ignore the issue, but that is no longer tenable when the fight comes to the UK. The euro crisis means it is inevitable that the European treaties will be renegotiated, which needs the UK’s approval, and it would not just be a lost opportunity, but historically unprecedented, not to put our own demands on the table: suggestions include bringing back powers over working hours and health and safety. The prime minister caused excitement in the 1922 committee by telling them that he was “sharpening his pencil”, but then he tempered it by saying anything would have to be agreed with the Liberal Democrats.
There is however a contradiction in the overall Liberal Democrat position, and it could provide a way to break the impasse. The key is to push what I will call “European localism”. The debate should not be about being for or against the EU; but which powers are held at what level. For any given issue, there is a practical and democratically optimal level where control should reside. At one extreme, our space programme clearly operates best at a European level; I would suggest that control over working hours should rest at a national level; control over business rates should be at local authority level. For a whole range of well-rehearsed reasons, the default should be that control should reside at as low a level as practically possible – devolve where possible and only centralise where necessary.
But this principle applies at both national and European level. It is both irrational and hypocritical to call for powers to be devolved down at the UK level, but simultaneously centralised at a European level. The localist vision the Liberal Democrats are pushing within the UK should apply at the EU level. Hence, European localism should be our guiding principle behind our approach to the EU. If someone believes the principles of localism stop at the Channel, they should have to explain why. The suspicion would be that pro-EU ideology is blinding them and tainting their judgement. Pushing European localism isn’t about being for or against the EU, any more than pushing localism in the UK is being for or against national government. It is about getting the EU to work better, and be closer to its citizens – just as localism within the UK is about getting our over-centralised government to work better.
Obviously, we have been around these arguments many times – Margaret Thatcher pushed the EU legal principle of subsidiarity, and got nowhere. The result is that subsidiarity, which is a fine legal principle now enshrined in EU treaties, has become totally discredited among Eurosceptics.
But language can be astonishingly powerful in politics. There might be arguments against adopting the phrase “European localism”, but the biggest in favour is that it puts those who are against repatriating any powers from Brussels on the back foot; they immediately have to explain why the vision for localism at a national level doesn’t apply at the EU level. Localism is almost impossible to be against – both at national, and European, level. We're all localists now, and it is time we pushed that at every level.