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Speech to the London Europe Society, London 1995

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: London

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be here today at what is a critical moment in Europe.

One of Jean Monnet's greatest skills in pursuing the European idea was an ability to recognise when one door was firmly shut and then to find another which could be opened more easily. He fully understood the futility of flogging a dead horse when the race could be won by switching to a healthier and faster steed.

Sadly, it seems that the present generation of European leaders lacks not only Monnet's vision but also his intuitive understanding of political reality.

Faced with the problems currently confronting the Union, I believe that we could do a lot worse than try and understand how the Founding Fathers of Europe might have sought a solution.

First, I imagine they would go right back to the fundamental purpose of the European Union - the reason why if it did not already exist, it would have to be invented. That is to secure permanent peace on our continent.

It cannot be repeated too often that this is our prime objective, and that everything else - from the role of institutions through to the single market, from job creation schemes to foreign policy co-operation - are simply means to that end.

The Treaty of Rome, the single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty were means to that end. European Monetary Union would also be a means to that end.

But that is what they are - desirable means to an end. The confusion comes when the European elite begin to see these processes as an end in themselves.

Financial Times journalist Edward Mortimer called the European Community "a brilliant conspiracy of political elites". He was right - it has been a conspiracy and it is brilliant. But what might have been right in the past is no longer so today.

If, today, we are to preserve the Founding Fathers' vision of a Europe of peace, bound together by what Monnet called "concrete achievements generating an active community of interest" among its people, there are two fundamental challenges which must be urgently addressed.

The first is to bridge the enormous gulf that has grown up between the political elites of Europe and ordinary citizens.

The second, historic challenge, is to respond to the needs of the newly emerged democracies of central and eastern Europe, if peace and stability on the continent are to be guaranteed.

If these two issues are not urgently and convincingly addressed, I believe that we shall face the real possibility of the process of integration first slowing to a halt and then beginning to reverse with deeply dangerous and unpredictable consequences.

I hope this does not sound as if I have joined the Prime Minister's bandwagon and become a convert to Euro-scepticism. NOTHING could be further from the truth.

I will inevitably disagree with SOME aspects of EU policy and structure - that doesn't mean I reject the FRAMEWORK of integration and common action.

It is in this context that I should like to make some suggestions about the way I believe Europe should now proceed.

Once our prime objective has been defined - and let me repeat that that objective must be the preservation of peace and its concomitant, the protection of human rights - the first question must be: can it be achieved any other way than by uniting Europe?

Personally, I do not think so.

Unfortunately, good intentions have never been enough. Ultimately, as with individuals, the only way to prevent conflict between states is the rule of law - openly, impartially enacted by democratically elected representatives.

So far, it is fair to say, the European Union has been constructed on these principles. Today, however, the sense of a "contract" between people and their elected representatives has been eroded at every level of government - most particularly at those levels of government where the relationship between elector and elected is most extended. If people do not trust their national parliament, how much harder is it to trust remote and seemingly unaccountable institutions in other countries?

It has long been one of the failures of pro-Europeans that they have assumed that because logic was on their side, information alone would sway the argument. The fact is that we are dealing with feelings and emotions that run far deeper than mere logic.

I propose, therefore, that having agreed our overriding objective, the strategy must be to seek ways forward that carry the support of our people.

The debate about Europe has been a politicians' debate which has excluded the people whom Europe is supposed to serve. The politicians' debate must now become a people's debate. We must engage the electorate in this debate and carry them with us.

That is why my Party and I believe that further substantial change in Britain's constitutional relations with Europe must carry the popular assent of the people of the United Kingdom through a referendum.

Take EMU. For those pursuing the European dream of peace and prosperity - of whom I am one - Economic and Monetary Union makes sense. We can see its relevance to business, and its boost to the single market. We can see its practical benefit to tourists and travellers. We can see its value and strength, compared to national currencies, as a hard currency in a world of volatile currency speculation. If we are honest, we know that it will also reinforce political solidarity among its members.

If carefully designed, and implemented sensibly and at the right pace, it will further integrate our national markets, enable us more effectively to compete in the global market, and deliver tangible benefits for Europe's people.

And yet while people understand the need for, and want, a strong stable currency, the economics of EMU quite frankly leave most people cold.. What they see is not the macro-economic case but a sense of loss at something that was a familiar part of our culture, and a indefinable sense of giving up something that "belonged" to our country. No amount of rational argument by itself will succeed in altering such deeply felt emotions.

It is no longer good enough simply to say that EMU must be introduced because it is good for Europe, and hope that people will eventually get to see it that way. We must begin from the position that it is treated with, at best, suspicion by the majority of people - and not just in the UK - and seek to persuade them of its importance before we are inexorably part of it.

Let me make it quite clear. This does not imply a retreat from the principle of EMU. It is simply to recognise that for monetary union to work, it requires genuine democratic support - and legitimacy - which cannot be sought simply by presenting our citizens with a fait accompli.

We need to persuade people of the benefits of EMU, in terms of both jobs and long-term security through closer economic co-operation.

And if it proves harder - and takes longer - to reach EMU than some initially thought then, in the best Monnet tradition, we should seek to make progress in other areas to make the European ideal live in the hearts and minds of Europe's people.

The key here is to tackle the lack of clarity that exists in Europe as to where power actually lies, and by whom it is exercised.

This is the subject that is supposed to be tackled in the next round of the Inter-Governmental Conference. It would be nice to think that their deliberations will end in something clearer and more coherent than the Maastricht Treaty. I fear, however, that, yet again, it will degenerate into a process of horse trading between governments determined to protect their political backs and that we shall end up being faced with another indigestible package.

But this time, let us be clear, referendums will not be restricted solely to those countries where they are constitutionally required. This time round, the people of Europe will demand to be heard and if the best we can come up with is something as incomprehensible and clearly cobbled together as Maastricht, then we risk putting the whole project in danger.

The IGC must have the courage to face up to kernel of the problem and present to the people of Europe a clear and simple set of constitutional principles and defined powers that can be understood by everyone. We could even seek popular ratification for this settlement through the ballot-box.

At the heart of what would amount to a clear-cut constitutional settlement in Europe must be a clear understanding of the limits of European Union power.

European legislation is affecting every level of society and every sector of our industrial and leisure life. For many, this is a frustrating and seemingly pointless exercise. The need for Europe-wide environmental protection may be well understood. Social benefits are appreciated by many. But the involvement of European legislation, albeit in an attempt to regulate the single market, in what has been called the 'nooks and crannies' of everyday life can only be a source of anger and frustration if it is not rigorously limited.

Of course member state governments "gold-plate" directives and then blame the Commission - and no-one does it better than the British. That's just one reason why we need greater openness in the decision-making process.

But it is still reasonable to ask: do we as intelligent, responsible adults really need all the protection we are getting at every level of life?

Of course, we must aim for high standards and good practice, but there is an argument for allowing standards, wherever possible, to evolve rather than be imposed by institutions dangerously isolated from ordinary citizens, their lives and their concerns.

The key is surely to be make sure that what we entrust Europe to do, it does well; that if we give Europe less to do overall, we ensure Europe is able to do it better.

The final question that must be answered is whether peace can be guaranteed on our continent as long as the needs of our central and eastern European neighbours are treated as a secondary issue.

In my view it can't.

I do not pretend that there won't be massive problems to overcome before the European Union can embrace those new European democracies that wish to enter. I am also conscious that rushing their entry too fast would carry grave political and economic risks both in the applicant and member states.

Nevertheless, enlargement offers the EU its greatest challenge, and its greatest opportunity to extend peace and security across central Europe, to underpin democratic government and open societies in countries emerging from socialism.

There is a danger that the preoccupation with monetary union and the internal difficulties that poses for the EU of 15 will push enlargement to the end of the IGC agenda - to be put off for another five perhaps ten years. But too great a delay carries enormous risks which, in the long run could be even graver.

What I will say is this. Anyone who wills the end of enlargement must will the means. And as John Major proved again in his Mansion House speech last night, no-one needs to understand that better than the British government.

A wider European Union simply will not be able to function effectively unless we are prepared to reform its institutions.

The choice we have was put quite simply by Hans van den Broek in London last Friday. He said:

"There are two broad scenarios which can be envisaged. Either the Union will be enlarged as a genuinely integrated structure, bound by common interests, based on unity, while respecting the diversity of its member states, and speaking with one voice in world affairs. Or a wider Union will become a kind of United Nations of Europe, with little internal coherence and, consequently, little external clout in world affairs; a largely inter-governmental organisation, slow at taking decisions, fragmented in its policies, and unable to compete on an equal basis with the United States, Japan and the world's other major powers".

The commitment to widening will unquestionably involve some constitutional DEEPENING of relationships between the existing member states if it is to work. And this must be recognised at the IGC.

We are at a watershed in European politics. It is foolish to assume that the dangers of war and conflict are finished forever. European history has shown that they lie under the surface waiting to explode when the circumstances are propitious. And I fear that today's climate of mistrust and uncertainty could begin to create a climate in which conflict, once again, find its supporters.

The coming months are a moment of great opportunity for Europe - but also a moment of great danger.

Europe began this century as a collection of jealous, competing states who within fourteen years were involved in the bloodiest war the world has ever seen.

I hope and pray that we enter the next century more confidently - as part of a strong, vibrant Union of co-operating states.

But if we are, then in the months ahead, Europe's leaders will need to show the sort of vision, resolute commitment and political ability that was shown by Europe's founding fathers when, in the aftermath of the Second World War, they set out to create a very different future for Europe's people.

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