Brexit is a mistake for our country. Membership of the European Union is in Britain’s best interests. The fact that Brexit is happening does not change that.
Our right-wing opponents want to silence our views, and are even trying to suppress the word ‘Brexit.’ They want to treat our departure as the end of the debate. It’s not; there are still a vast number of people who want to be part of the European Union in the future.
European Union membership is a live possibility that can become reality whenever the British people choose democratically to elect a majority of MPs ready to pursue that goal.
However, the chances of that happening after the next general election are slim. As pro-Europeans, we need to play the long game and must prepare our hearts for the possibility that it may take a decade or more.
There are two main things that need to happen for EU membership to remain a real possibility:
1) We must point out every single bit of damage to Britain that Brexit causes. Brexit will inevitably leave our economy weaker, our environmental and labour regulations undercut, and our sovereignty diminished. The Tories will blame anything but Brexit. It is not enough for pro-Europeans to hope that truth will cut through by itself. We must highlight the failures of Brexit, and not let the Tories evade full responsibility.
2) The powerful pro-European movement that sprang up all over Britain in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum must stay together. The voice of the pro-European movement must be heard in parliament and the press, but the heart of the movement must beat from the grassroots. Conferences, street stalls, social media campaigns, cultural events, rallies, magazines, educational exchanges – these are the vehicles through which our proud European identity can continue to be trumpeted in every corner of the country. We aren’t going away.
These go hand in hand. Without a voice at national level the grassroots movement will lose faith and gradually disband, and without the energy of the grassroots movement, the pro-European voices on the national level will find themselves drowned out.
As leader of the Liberal Democrat party I could be this voice. I became an MP on the back of this pro-European movement, and I was the only Lib Dem MP who voted against every single form of Brexit in the last Parliament.
The Labour party are still stuck on Brexit. Their catastrophic defeat in their northern heartlands has left them with no enthusiasm to come down on one side of the Brexit argument anytime soon.
This means the Liberal Democrats have a historic mission. For the next few years it will fall to us alone to keep reminding the public that Brexit is causing the country serious problems. It will also fall to the Lib Dems to enthusiastically support the grassroots pro-European movement.
Whether the Liberal Democrats successfully fulfil this historic mission will depend on who becomes leader of the party this summer. There is a temptation in some parts of the party to make our peace with Brexit, and push for a softer Brexit than the one the Tories will deliver.
This is misguided. We can’t beat the Tories by legitimising their headline project. Brexit will be a disaster, and we have to be saying clearly that it was a mistake, and that the mistake can be solved through the European Union. To defeat the Tories, we need to stand against them on Brexit.
I recognise that we cannot join the European Union any time soon. However, I will never deviate from singing our pro-European values from the rooftops. The fact that Brexit has happened does not devalue the reasons at the heart of our fight to stop Brexit. Indeed, we should be as proudly pro-European as ever.
Let’s stick to our principles and be confident that our time will come.