Europe: when we fought back

Parts of Europe looked very different in the 1970s and 80s. We must not slip backwards now.

In May 2019, before Brexit silenced our voice in Europe, I stood for the European Parliament. Here’s why.

When I was growing up back in the 1970s, the idea of a peaceful united Europe of free democracies was a dream. Eastern Europe was under communist one-party rule, often enforced by Soviet tanks, Spain was run by the fascist Falangists, military coups were a recent memory in Portugal and Greece and conflicts and violence simmered from Cyprus to our own troubles in Northern Ireland.

The EU has been a tremendous force for peace and prosperity

I am immensely proud that we made that dream of a very different Europe a reality – a peaceful federation of free countries spanning the entire continent, united in openness and respect for democracy and the rule of law. A Europe open to all our children to learn and work and live where opportunity took them. The world’s largest economy – nearly a quarter of global GDP – but deploying that economic and political muscle on the world stage to support action on the environmental emergency we now face, as well as promoting human rights, development for the world’s poorest people and open trade and prosperity for all.

Perhaps because almost every country in Europe has invaded its neighbours and been invaded by them, been part of great empires now fallen or made great conquests now lost, we understood that history now needed to take a different, more peaceful and co-operative path. From the Balkans to Northern Ireland, conflicts have subsided as borders became less and less important.

Europe seen from space - without borders

Yet those of us who embraced that dream became complacent. We allowed xenophobia to gain ground in the popular media despite the fact that working age immigrants have helped our economy, staffed our hospitals and brought innovation and expertise to our universities and businesses. We let wildly inaccurate stories go unchallenged about the European Union – that it was run by unelected Eurocrats not the elected European Parliament and elected government ministers in the Council of Ministers, that it was vastly expensive when it actually costs each of us less than most of our local councils, that we were losing sovereignty to ‘them’ in Brussels not sharing it so that we could tackle issues together for the greater good.

The xenophobia and nationalism infected even mainstream politics. Leaders like Tony Blair and later David Cameron, scared of the rising nationalist right, drafted immigration bill after immigration bill and said they would get tough with “Brussels”. And then wondered why, when it came to the crunch, it was hard to suddenly defend an open Europe and all its achievements.

I took the fight to the Eurosceptics in the UK Parliament

While I was a Westminster MP, I was the Lib Dem parliamentary party’s spokesperson on European affairs, often taking on the Eurosceptics in hour after hour of debate. I helped to draft the party’s 2014 European manifesto which set out a visionary, reforming agenda – from crime and justice to consumer rights, from the environment to the financial system, from agriculture to Europe’s place in the world. But the tide was strongly running against us by then as decades of lies about Europe ‘bossing us around’ combined with fanciful promises of sunlit uplands after Brexit.

The truth was always that Brexit was bound to turn out badly. There is no ‘good Brexit’ and – unlike other referendums around the world – the Brexit referendum didn’t actually offer a specific proposition because even the Brexiteers never agreed on what Brexit meant. Read more on my take on Brexit here.

But the shambles of the negotiations did at least allow unexpected European elections in 2019 that gave us the chance to fight back. In Cheltenham, across the South West and across the UK as a whole, parties opposing Brexit outpolled the Brexit Party and UKIP combined.

With fellow Lib Dem MEP for the South West of England & Gibraltar, Caroline Voaden (@CarolineVoaden)

The Liberal Democrats staged a dramatic comeback in the election, winning 16 seats UK-wide. Myself and Caroline Voaden were elected in the South West of England & Gibraltar constituency. Across Europe, Liberal Democratic parties fought the rising tide of nationalism and populism and increased our representation to 107 seats. We had to go further and recapture the belief in a free, peaceful, prosperous and united Europe with Britain at its heart, to really challenge those who would take us back to a dangerous but not so distant past.

Sadly a flawed electoral system delivered a Conservative majority in the December 2019 general election, enabling a government elected by a minority of the electorate to push Brexit through against the wishes of the majority of population (according to almost every opinion poll). Even though the UK and Europe are now condemned to suffer the consequences of Brexit, I was honoured to play my part as an MEP in trying to stop that happening.

But that’s not quite the end. In September 2020, I moved the policy amendment at Lib Dem conference that committed the party to a long-term goal of Britain rejoining the European Union. As I said in my very last speech to the European Parliament, we will be back.

On the march..