Graham Watson MEP
Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for South West England and Gibraltar
A local champion with an international reputation
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Published on Friday 19th March 2004
I want to start by telling you about Fred, an elderly neighbour of my mine in Somerset. Fred was born and grew up in Somerset. He's never been further afield than London. But last year he decided he'd drive over to France, to visit his daughter and son-in-law who have moved to live there. "Be careful, Fred", I warned him: "you know they drive on the other side of the road in France." "Oh, I hadn't thought about that", he said.
I saw Fred again some weeks later. "How did you get on in France, Fred?" I asked him. "Oh, I didn't go in the end", he replied: "You know what you told I about driving on the other side of the road? Well, I thought I'd better try it before I went over there - and I can tell 'ee it's darn dangerous!"
Fred's daughter can buy a house in France because of the European Union. He could buy a low cost airline ticket to visit her because of laws passed in Brussels. If he'd driven and had an accident he would get first class hospital treatment in France. Because of the European Union.
But here's the rub. Fred may not bother to vote in the European elections in June. And his children almost certainly will not. Fred's children don't do politics.
Fred's son is a dairy and beef farmer. The people who herd his cows are Lithuanian. This year, the factory in Chard which processes his meat took on 200 workers from Portugal. You cannot get local people for those kinds of work.
But what do you imagine Fred thinks about immigration? Or about Lithuania and the nine other countries joining the EU in May? Too often, Fred thinks what the Daily Mail tells him to think.
We are about to fight an election about Europe. Let's be clear about that. This European election will not save your local hospital or lower your Council tax, however important they are, and however tempted we might be to campaign for them. This European election is not about top-up fees or affordable homes. It is about Europe.
And yet it is still a local election. Why?
Because Europe is the environment. It is security. It is jobs. It is investment. It is your rights as a citizen.
To get drugs off our streets we need Europe-wide action. Cleaner air is a common concern. Large lorries cross borders. Companies are now owned and trade and decisions about local jobs are made elsewhere.
Our party's euro manifesto this year - one of the best we've had - points out that government at EU level is no different from government at local or national level. Where it's broken we have to fix it. Where it works we have to say so.
It says Government at European level is good, and it's here to stay. And we can and must be there. And we can and do make the difference.
In this parliament the votes of Liberal Democrat MEPs made the difference on public health. We voted to make Europe's cigarette manufacturers cut tar and nicotine levels and put clear health warnings on all their packaging.
In the face of fierce lobbying, our MEPs made the difference on consumer safety. Genetically modified food in Europe is now subject to the world's strictest labelling requirements. That means choice for shoppers.
We made the difference on the environment. We voted to force EU governments - including this Labour government - to honour new targets for renewable energy.
We played a key role in freedom of information legislation and moves to open up the European Central Bank and the Commission to greater public scrutiny.
Just like here in Britain, it was Liberal Democrats in Europe who spoke out against a cavalier Blair-Bush policy in Iraq: our call for a UN role won the day.
And we're out to build a stronger Centrist force in the next Parliament to give us even more clout in Europe.
A Liberal Democrat vote in the euro election brings the same as voting for us at national level. A change from the closed political worlds of the left and right. A vision for Europe to match its size. A 450 million person vision.
The Liberal Democrat Europe is not something that happens somewhere else. It is as much about Birmingham and Bangor and Bristol as Brussels. Why?
Because the European Union is our guarantee. Our guarantee of prosperity in the largest single market on earth. Our guarantee of security in an unprecedentedly dangerous world. Our guarantee of sustainability in a world where the damage we are doing to the environment puts our planet's eco-systems at stake!
Don't expect the European election campaign to be easy. Don't waste your energy on the doorstep trying to undo the poison of a generation of anti-European propaganda.
But don't hide your colours.
It would be all too easy for Liberal Democrats to adopt a cautious approach, at odds with our Party's national appeal; to play the Europe issue like the hare in winter, turning white and vanishing against the snow.
Rather we must be, to borrow from the poet Tom Paulin, like the juniper tree. Tougher than the wind. Rugged, fecund, with resined spines, our springy resistance skirting the warped polities of other trees bent in the Atlantic wind.
Our opponents are still hopelessly confused on Europe.
The Tories are in favour of staying in the EU. They just want to repatriate the fisheries policy, the farm policy, the regional policy, the development policy, the aid policy, the security policy and the defence policy. But then they'll be ready to lead Britain in Europe!
Even by Tory standards, this is astonishing testimony to the invincibility of ignorance. In thirty years the Tory party still has not cottoned on that Britain is stronger in Europe than out.
Like Labour they prefer the facade of influence in Washington to the reality of power in Brussels.
Liberal Democrats say better a strong European pillar than a creaking Atlantic bridge.
And Tony Blair needs to realise that being a European is not about pasta lunches and schoolboy French: it means thinking as a European. Not at the expense of Britain, but because Britain cannot be strong in a weak Europe.
On the Constitution, on asylum, on social cohesion and on crime, the man who pledged to take on the eurosceptics is now one of the biggest footdraggers in the EU.
Even the Euro Roadshow had to be canned, because Gordon Brown kept letting the tyres down.
It's taken seven years for Labour policy to go from the heart of Europe to the middle of nowhere!
Six weeks from now, the European Union will welcome 10 new countries. That sounds a lot, but proportionally it is no bigger than when the UK and Denmark and Ireland joined 30 years ago. I recall we were welcomed by existing members at the time. Welcomed for the new ideas and the new energy we would bring.
When I meet Lithuanians and Latvians and Poles and Hungarians I don't see welfare scroungers and benefit tourists. I see people who want to work, people with a hunger for a new life. People who want to rebuild societies grappling with the changed realities of the world. I welcome them. And to those in this country who would say otherwise - I say shame on you! Shame on your prejudice and shame on your hatred!
Fellow Liberal Democrats, last week's terrible events in Madrid reminded us that Europe is built on solidarity - and they demand a response.
But will Europe's governments put aside their national prerogatives to make us safer? Or will they allow the illusion of national sovereignty to assist in global anarchy?
They should use the tools of co-operation we already have, left idle by national inflexibility, not just create another job in Brussels!
In the latest budget round the Council wanted to limit spending on anti-terrorism intelligence to 1 million euros. The European Commission had asked for 15 million.
The European Parliament had to fight - fight! - to raise it to 9 million, the minimum we need.
This year we finally got a European Arrest Warrant balanced with strong procedural safeguards. Finally got the tools to help European authorities work together to catch criminals who flee across national borders.
But don't thank the Tories - they voted against it!
In Europe there is no more safety in sovereignty.
There is no dignity in an island mentality that trades on a proud history rather than a formidable future.
And there's no freedom and no prosperity in a parish-pump politics that closes doors and carps from the sidelines.
The different approaches of the Tories, Labour and ourselves were summed up by Victor Hugo, "The future has several names. For the weak, it is called the impossible, for the timid, it is called the unknown, but for thinkers and the valiant, it is called the ideal."
Europe is our future. That's the case we have to make. We need to be there. So let's go and get out our voters..