Anthony Browne is former Brussels correspondent of the Times.
There is probably no other issue that splits the coalition as much as Europe: one side is Eurosceptic, the other is driven by an EU passion. The strategy until now has been to ignore the issue, but that is no longer tenable when the fight comes to the UK. The euro crisis means it is inevitable that the European treaties will be renegotiated, which needs the UK’s approval, and it would not just be a lost opportunity, but historically unprecedented, not to put our own demands on the table: suggestions include bringing back powers over working hours and health and safety. The prime minister caused excitement in the 1922 committee by telling them that he was “sharpening his pencil”, but then he tempered it by saying anything would have to be agreed with the Liberal Democrats.
There is however a contradiction in the overall Liberal Democrat position, and it could provide a way to break the impasse. The key is to push what I will call “European localism”. The debate should not be about being for or against the EU; but which powers are held at what level. For any given issue, there is a practical and democratically optimal level where control should reside. At one extreme, our space programme clearly operates best at a European level; I would suggest that control over working hours should rest at a national level; control over business rates should be at local authority level. For a whole range of well-rehearsed reasons, the default should be that control should reside at as low a level as practically possible - devolve where possible and only centralise where necessary.