Liberal Democrats differentiate themselves on Europe as the only party that is truly European. This is interpreted by the public at large as meaning uncritical acceptance of overbearing European interference in every aspect of our lives and of an expensive Euro-bureaucracy. I don’t believe this is the case, but Lib Dems have not articulated their position on Europe well enough and it is a convenient for the media to characterise them so, especially the Tory Press, creating more than a channel’s-width of blue water between the Lib Dems and a Euro-sceptic Tory party.
In reality very few people, including Lib Dems, really wants the kind of Europe that the Euro-sceptics are sceptical about or that Ukip wants to be independent from. But equally I suspect that neither are the millions who voted for Ukip so against Europe as the few extremists, or opportunists, who lead that party. No one in their right senses wants a Europe divided on racial, religious or nationalist lines from which another catastrophic war could quite conceivably result and most people probably believe that an open Europe of free trade and generally free movement, is a good thing. On a recent visit to Brussels I visited the "Parliamentarium", a technically very clever but admittedly self-serving museum covering the history benefits of the EU. What struck me was how compelling is the narrative about European history over the last 100 years, and the visionary leaders who saw some political integration as the only way to avoid future catastrophes. I have also to admit I was not fully aware of how the democratic machinery of the EU works, but I blame that largely on UK politicians who don't bother to explain this to the electorate. When for example have they ever at elections talked about the policies and manifestos of the coalitions to which their parties below? Instead they just bang on about their own UK party policies, as if they can enact legislation or change in Europe without the help of others. But that is another story.
What is clear to me is that most people, including pro-Europeans, see many aspects of the EU that need reforming. By that I don't just mean improvements through further cooperation, but real change in what is understood by the “European experiment”. Bloated budgets and bureaucracy suit the dirigiste political elites of major European countries, and a few of the minor ones whose politicians are given plum jobs in the Commission because they are not big hitters, are consummate behind-the-scenes operators and play ball with the big boys. But this is an insult to the citizens who pay for it all, and the rise of euro-sceptic political movements across European countries indicates people have twigged.
The fact is, although it has taken more powers for itself over the last decade or so, the European Parliament remains weak relative to the Commission and EU politics is all behind-the-scenes power-broking and expense-paid trips (sorry, European summits). We would not accept this as a substitute for democracy at a national level, so why is it acceptable for Europe?
A true federal system with direct elections, such as in the USA, is clearly not acceptable (though another European war may change minds), and doing nothing is not an option. The alternative is surely to ensure that more power is returned to nation states, while maintaining effective democratic oversight of those activities that can more effectively be managed centrally. I don't think it is anti-European to make this argument; it is pro-democratic. It is also consistent with devolution of power to the level where it is best exercised in a democratic system, and surely decentralisation, bringing decisions closer to the people affected, is a liberal (and Lib Dem?) principle?
Portraying pro-European views as opposite to those of the Euro-sceptics only helps the latter's cause; it will not help move the debate forward. Being pro-European does not mean being in favour of what Europe is now. It means believing that a Europe working together is a better, and safer place to live, for ourselves,our children and their children as well. And if Lib Dems are true to their roots then they should be a sceptical of centralised government and bureaucracy as anyone else. We need strong democratic systems to control them and constant vigilance against inefficiency and bureaucracy. And if it is right to empower communities with more devolution within the UK, then surely the same applies to Europe.
It is time to move forward on the basis that not everything in Europe is right. Liberal democrats need to emphasise the things we believe Europe is good for, and to highlight those areas where change is needed, which is entirely consistent with Liberal principles. This is a far better way to be pro-European, than to be tarred as the "only truly European party" without explaining what that entails. And there is still enough ground to distinguish between the political parties where necessary, and (why not?) emphasis areas on which we violently agree. Surely we should all be Euro-sceptics now. That is the real liberalism.