It seems natural to me that we should be at the forefront of attempts to improve the EU

February 2: Ming Campbell met with Liberal Democrats in Brussels earlier today and addressed them as follows:

I am delighted to be able to join you here today.

The European Parliament is unique. There is simply no other Parliament in the world like it. Working in twenty different languages, legislating for a partnership of 450 million citizens, it is a daring example of representative democracy in action.

I am immensely proud of the work of our Liberal Democrat MEPs, and of that of our colleagues from Liberal parties across Europe. You are promoting a European Union which is economically dynamic, environmentally sustainable and politically accountable. A union which has liberal values at its core.

I am a lifelong internationalist. It has always seemed self evident to me that the pooling of sovereignty at international level is necessary if we wish to influence the world around us. Globalisation has made this need for collective, supranational decision-making even more pressing. The new threats to our collective security – international terrorism, unstable or rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, cross border crime, and global climate change – demand a coherent international response.

In seeking the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in Great Britain, I can promise you this: I will lead a party which will wear its internationalism on its sleeve.

The old distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have collapsed. Concern about the environment, questions about asylum and immigration, trade, crime, transport, defence, energy are now matters for BOTH domestic and foreign policy.

It used to be said that all politics is local. Now it is just as true to say that all politics is international.

As party leader I will reaffirm our commitment to the European Union. There will always be controversial debates about Europe’s powers and about its institutions, just as there are debates in Britain about our own institutions, but I do not want us to lose sight of a simple truth: without the European Union we in Britain would have less influence over events which escape the reach of our national political institutions.

In the 21st century the problems of the world are not such as can be addressed by sending a gun boat from Whitehall. They are infinitely more complex. They require international agreement and co-operation. As a powerful player within the European Union, Britain strengthens its ability to secure change.

In pooling our decision-making authority with other countries of like mind and shared values our real sovereignty, our power to influence the world around us, is hugely increased. This is something the anti-Europeans always fail to understand.

But while I appreciate and admire the big picture of Europe I am not enamoured by all the finer details. As party leader I will be as much for the reform of the EU as I am for the EU itself. I see no contradiction between the wish to promote the virtues of European integration and a desire to improve the European Union.

This body is not perfect. It is in constant need of renewal. Just as Liberal Democrats have been consistent campaigners for constitutional and political reform in the United Kingdom, it seems natural to me that we should be at the forefront of attempts to improve the EU too. We are not wreckers but we will be reformers. Our criticisms will stem from a desire to make the European Union more responsive and more effective. I know these views are shared by my colleagues here in this parliament.

Political renewal is a key part of my leadership campaign. To argue the case for electoral reform, for an accountable House of Lords and for devolved local Government flows from the liberal belief that political power should be dispersed, and be accountable.

But in calling for the renewal of European institutions we should also recognise the degree to which reform IS already taking place. In fact the pace of progress can be considered impressive by British standards. While the Parliament at Westminster gained new powers during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Parliament has in many ways grown similarly in authority since its first election in 1979. The way in which the European Commission, Europe’s Executive, is now answerable to MEPs would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

In the last few months Liberal MEPs have led the campaign to curb the unacceptable secrecy behind which government ministers have debated new laws here in Brussels, conveniently keeping their deliberations unaccountable to national parliaments. As a result progress has been made, with the Council agreeing just last December to open up more of its proceedings. It’s a small step forward, but there are giant strides still to be taken if openness and transparency is to be confirmed as the hallmark of European decision-making.

Those of us proud to be Europeans need to proclaim our achievements. We need to make clear that we are going to make more progress together. But if we are to win hearts and minds we must also address the criticisms and complaints.

Few allegations do more to undermine the reputation of the European institutions than the claim that inadequate accounting arrangements leave public money open to fraud and corruption. The continuing refusal of the EU’s own Court of Auditors to ‘sign off’ the EU’s accounts reinforces this impression, and gives the British tabloids an annual opportunity to heap ridicule on Europe.

The reality, of course, is more complex. Many problems of the past have now been addressed. New accounting procedures introduced last year may well ensure that the spending administered in Brussels is more tightly controlled and better scrutinised than in any of Europe’s national capitals.

But the headline condemnations will continue because officials here are not directly responsible for so much of the money that is allocated. The European Union’s budget for this year amounts to €121 billion. It’s a lot of money, but it is not Brussels but national governments that are responsible for spending 80% of it.

It is the Commission’s inability to supervise this expenditure that is the principal reason for the Court of Auditors’ refusal to sign off the accounts. The reputation of Europe as a whole is tarnished because of the difficulty of establishing what happens to money under the jurisdiction of national, regional and local authorities.

So I want to support a new approach. I want the individuals in charge of spending so much money on behalf of European taxpayers to take personal responsibility for what they do.

I call on Gordon Brown and his fellow finance ministers across Europe to provide the Commission each year with a National Declaration of Assurance – a document prepared on the advice of the senior auditing officers in each member state confirming that EU funds have been spent properly in each country.

These declarations will be personally endorsed by finance ministers, and the evidence that supports them will be subject to scrutiny by national parliaments.

This is a simple, practical step that would significantly enhance the transparency of EU expenditure. It will help identify culprits and allow us to praise good practice. It will put the spending of European money under better scrutiny than ever before.

So come on Gordon, sign the pledge! Help give Europe’s spending a clean bill of health.

Liberal Democrats are taking particular enjoyment from the spectacle of the Conservative Party trying to tear itself away from the mainstream of European conservatism.

We want to know whether the split in Tory ranks going to come next week, next month or next year? Is Mr Cameron’s approach to leadership in Europe going to mean that his MEPs are aligned with an extreme party that discriminates against homosexuals, or an extreme party that discriminates against women?

Well, let the Tories stew under the heat. While they quarrel amongst themselves Liberal Democrats will set the agenda here in Europe. We are going to present our plans for addressing the faults and raising the sights.

We are going to put forward practical proposals for reforms and improvements that will be in the interest of Europe and in the interest of Britain.

The knowledge and expertise of our MEPs is an asset that has not been used to the full. Under my leadership our two parliamentary parties will work more closely than ever before. We are going to start campaigning together, agreeing a programme of joint initiatives, and piling on the pressure for change from both sides of the Channel.

Thank you for inviting me here today. In this room we sit like knights of the round table. I look forward over the next few years to getting to know the committee rooms of the European Parliament in all their infinite variety!