Anyone who was at the last two Liberal Democrat conferences should remember the two debates that were held on the party’s position on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. In a passionately argued debate last September, conference resolved that the party should support a longer-term objective of UK membership of the the EU, but we rejected a proposal for an immediate campaign to reverse Brexit, which, it was argued, was more likely to alienate voters sick of the recent history of Brexit-inspired division and bitterness. Conference also called for the closest possible alignment between the UK and the EU on trade, security, environmental, social, judicial, educational and scientific issues.
We aim to construct a ‘roadmap to rejoin’ that ultimately convinces the electorate that membership of the EU is in the UK’s best interests
The government’s disastrous Trade and Cooperation Agreement was finalised at the end of 2020, so the motion we adopted at spring conference this year was able to add further detail. We condemned the agreement wholeheartedly (‘the only “free” trade deal in history to put up new barriers to trade instead of pulling them down’). Conference instructed the Federal Policy Committee to: ‘carry out a programme of work, including consulting widely within the party, to determine the best possible future framework for the UK–EU relationship across all policy areas, with the aims of:
(a) demonstrating the benefits to UK citizens and businesses of a much closer relationship compared to the government’s inadequate measures;
(b) recommending roadmaps for the UK to rejoin the Customs Union, Single Market and other EU agencies and programmes as appropriate; and
(c) maximising public support for eventual UK membership of the EU.’
The basic thrust of the party’s position is therefore clear: to demonstrate how the version of Brexit that the government has chosen is disastrous for the UK in every respect, and to call for a different relationship in the immediate term – for example, membership of the Single Market – that would be much better. In this way, we aim to construct a ‘roadmap to rejoin’ that ultimately convinces the electorate – including a sizeable number of those who voted Leave in 2016 – that membership of the EU is in the UK’s best interests.
The basic thrust of the party’s position is therefore clear: to demonstrate how this version of Brexit is disastrous for the UK in every respect
The FPC has appointed a small group, chaired by Duncan Brack and including representatives of the parliamentary party, the Federal International Relations Committee and the Liberal Democrat European Group, to implement the conference instruction. Our remit covers such a wide range of topics – UK membership of the Customs Union and the Single Market, rejoining or associating with EU agencies and programmes such as Europol, Erasmus Plus, the EU emissions trading system or the EU Aviation Safety Agency, and closer cooperation over health, climate change, environment, crime and policing, education, scientific research, and foreign, security and defence policy – that we’ve decided to approach our task through a series of conference motions and papers rather than one big one.
So, as a start, we’ve submitted a motion on ‘Rebuilding our Cultural, Artistic and Educational ties with Europe’ to this autumn’s conference, and it’ll be debated on the Monday afternoon. The FPC’s motion on carbon pricing also deals extensively with linking the UK’s and EU’s efforts to combat climate change, and a number of other motions touch on EU issues.
For next year’s spring conference we’re planning a motion on Single Market and Customs Union membership; this is such a complex area, covering, among other things, freedom of movement, social, health and environmental standards and the Northern Ireland Protocol, that we’ll be accompanying it with a short paper, to be published in January. There is no doubt about the party’s commitment to rejoining the Single Market and Customs Union – that was made clear at this year’s spring conference – but there are many issues to consider about the practicalities, the phasing and the impacts.
The future of the relationship between the UK and EU in the next few years will be one of the most crucial issues this country will face
Of course we don’t want to restrict what the party is saying on these topics just to conference debates, so Layla Moran will be coordinating our parliamentary spokespeople and encouraging them to put forward proposals for closer and stronger relationships with the EU in all their spokespersonship areas.
We hope many of those who read this will want to speak in the debates coming up at conference. We’re keen to hear from as many of you as possible, though, so we are also organising a consultative session on the Friday afternoon of conference, so you can tell us how you think the future UK–EU relationship should develop, across any of the policy areas you think are most important; and, perhaps even more importantly, how the party should present our proposals to appeal to both Remain and Leave voters.
And since we only have limited time at conference, we’re working with the Lib Dem European Group to help them organise a one-day conference on 30 October, preceded by a series of regional events, which should allow for much wider participation. Look out for more news from LDEG as these events are finalised.
The future of the relationship between the UK and EU in the next few years will be one of the most crucial issues this country will face; it is hard to think of any policy area it does not affect, or any individual, community or business it will not have an impact on. Making sure the Liberal Democrats develop a principled and practical set of proposals to deal with this, with the ultimate aim of persuading the electorate to support the UK rejoining the EU, is one of the most critical tasks in front of the party, and we hope you will help us fulfil it.