Liberal Democrats are to drop the party’s commitment to UK membership of the EU in a vote at next weekend’s virtual annual conference, The Independent has learnt.
A resolution, agreed by the party’s federal policy committee on the weekend and likely to dismay some activists, does not make rejoining the EU a formal goal.
Instead, the motion commits the party to “keep all options open” for the UK’s future relationship with the 27-nation bloc in the longer term, including the possibility of rejoining “at an appropriate future date to be determined by political circumstances”.
And it commits the Lib Dems to obtaining voters’ backing - either through a referendum or on the back of an election - for any future application for membership, stating that this should be “subject to public assent” as well as “market and trade conditions and acceptable negotiated terms”.
The resolution, which is subject to an electronic vote by members at the online conference, marks a step back from the Lib Dems’ manifesto promise in December’s general election, when Jo Swinson promised to stop Brexit without a second referendum if she won power.
It reflects an effort by new leader Sir Ed Davey to shake off the Lib Dems’ image as a single-issue Remain party, while holding onto their mantle as the most pro-European of the major national parties. And it indicates his acceptance that other issues must take priority over a return to the EU fold which could be many years off.
Lib Dem Europe spokeswoman Christine Jardine told The Independent: “At this point, our priority is to make sure that we do everything we can to keep the pressure on the government to get a trade deal with the EU at the end of December and to make sure we have as positive a relationship as possible with the EU after the end of the Brexit transition.
“We are still hugely and proudly pro-European, but we have to accept and reflect the new reality that we have left the EU and its up to us now to build a fresh relationship with the remaining EU.”
The motion states that the party’s priorities in Europe should be to expose the damage done to the UK by the government’s handling of Brexit and to campaign against measures which would harm Britain’s industry, agriculture and democracy.
It calls for “the closest possible alignment between the UK and EU towards customs union, single market and freedom of movement”, but does not explicitly commit the party to seeking to restore them.
And it voices “deep concern” at the government’s refusal to seek an extension to trade talks beyond the 31 December date for Brexit transition, despite the current deadlock in negotiations.
It states that the UK cannot afford to crash out without a deal or with a “rushed, bad deal” amid uncertainties over Covid-19 and growing international rivalries between major powers.
And it warns that Boris Johnson’s willingness to break international law by overriding elements of the Brexit withdrawal agreement “almost certainly precludes any chance of a free trade agreement with either the EU or the USA”.
Asked if she expected resistance to the resolution from Lib Dem activists, many of whom have devoted the last few years to fighting against Brexit and retain a deep commitment to the dream of rejoining Europe, Ms Jardine said: “Of course there will be a debate about it at conference.
“We have had a hearty debate many times on our position and I would be more worried if we weren’t talking about it this weekend.”
She refused to say how long she expected the UK to remain outside the EU, saying she would “need a crystal ball”.
“It’s impossible now to know what the position will be,” she said. “Our position over the next 10 years will be that we stay as close to the EU as we can.”
Ms Jardine said she wanted the party to have an opportunity to foreground its positions on issues like climate change and social justice in the coming years.
“We are not purely a Remain party,” she said. “Far from it. I am not in the Liberal Democrats because I’m pro-European, I’m pro-European because I’m liberal, but being a liberal is about so much more than being in the EU.”