The elections for the European Parliament are round the corner and those of us who will turn up to vote anywhere in Europe are faced with a multiplicity of choices. Who to vote for?
In the UK context, there are four choices: Ukip, Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat. Who should one pick? This is something I have been thinking about for some time and on which I have finally reached a conclusion.
A vote for Ukip is a vote to go backwards. Ukip stands for British isolation, xenophobia and a fractured and angry society rather than a collaborative one. The party has no European policy - just a policy to pull Britain out of the EU. The result is greater difficulty in international trade, more challenges for job creation and a withdrawal of Britain from the centre of European and international affairs. Even if one agreed with British withdrawal, that is a British question not something that can be fought for in Brussels. Ukip should therefore be contesting seats in Westminster not in Brussels. But, as Farage has clearly shown by shying away from contesting the Newark by-election, most British people shudder in horror at the idea of a Ukip MP.
As regards Europe, the Tories are not one party but two - ever at each others' throats. One party is indistinguishable from Ukip and can be dismissed on similar grounds. The other is the party of business. This has appeal as the party that will defend the integrity of the single market and the interests of the UK within that market. However, it is a fine line between defending the interests of UK business and being captured by the interests of business and capital at the expense of the interests of the individual. The current Tories do not manage that fine line very well and tend towards being captured by the interests of capital. In the UK political context this failure has allowed Ed Milliband to make hay on issues relating to the cost of living crisis and the ever-increasing economic inequality and social exclusion. Translated to Europe, this would translate to what a French politician called "a Europe in the service of big banks and corporations." This is not what most of us want so a Tory vote, while possible, is risky. It represents a blend of Ukip lite and the defence of vested interests.
Labour have, to my knowledge, not expressed a clear vision of the Europe they would wish to construct. However, under Milliband, they have taken a clear turn to the old left - the left of big government and its interference in every aspect of business and daily life. Under Blair, they even came perilously close to joining the Euro. In the absence of a clearly expressed vision, one can only assume that a labour presence in Europe would fight for ever-increasing social legislation emanating from Brussels and imposed on the British people and the British economy. This would be more akin to the French vision of Europe than the British one. For me, a Labour vote is a no-go zone.
That leaves us with the Liberal Democrats. They are the most explicitly 'pro-Europe' of all the parties. By wearing their European heart on their sleeve they risk creating the perception that they will support anything that Europe does and that they will be supine in the face of continued European integration. In his debates with Farage, Clegg defended the advantages of Europe but did not put forward a vision for how to renew Europe to make it successful for the future. A vote for the Lib Dems may be a vote for the status quo - something that most people are not particularly happy with.
It's not an easy choice. None of the parties have energized the voting public with a positive vision of Europe that many of us can buy into. In this barren landscape, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are the main contenders. My choice would go against all the polls - I would pick the Liberal Democrats. Why on earth would you do that I hear you ask.
Going back to the Gladstonian foundations of Liberalism, the party today remains more than any other the party of the individual. Liberalism believes in individual freedoms, diversity, an open, internationalist outlook committed to free trade and a government that does what it has to do to maintain prosperity and social cohesion - but no more. If Lib Dem MEPs were to stick to these principles, they would fight for a Europe that values openness and collaboration and treasures individual and national liberties, not allowing them to become subsumed into a centralised bureaucracy. And, unlike the current Tory government whose first action was to isolate itself and make itself ineffective by pulling out of the conservative grouping in the European Parliament, the Lib Dems would be in a position to work towards their vision from the inside - by having the credibility to collaborate with like minded parties across the continent.
A British representation in Europe that follows Liberal principles should work towards a strong, prosperous and effective Britain in a Europe that is open, focused on the empowerment of the individual, respects and celebrates the diversity of its different nations and is not captured either by a centralised bureaucracy or by powerful vested interests. This is a vision for Europe that, I believe, most of the British people could buy into and actively support. In the words of Dutch MEP Dennis de Jong, it represents "less EU, more Europe."