Yes, it's that time in the political cycle again, when European elections take place. And, once again, the motley crew of Europhobes that is the United Kingdom Independence Party have taken centre stage. Their mixture of smears, inaccuracies and petty nationalism appeals to an electorate who, to be honest, have little idea as to where their money goes and what the European Union does for them.
Oh yes, the European Union is a flawed creation, overly secretive, with a democratic deficit and byzantine structures. Too many of its big decisions stem from fudged agreements made in smoke-filled rooms by the ministers of the national governments. And yet it has been, in broad terms, astonishingly successful. The creation of the biggest multinational free trade area in the world has acted as a model for other regional groups such as ASEAN, the freedom to work in other countries and to travel across borders without the need for passports, all of these things have made life better for those of us willing to take advantage.
Programmes such as Erasmus, the exchange scheme for students whereby they can study in another country for a year, encourage a freer flow of knowledge and engender greater understanding. Investment in key transportation routes eases the free flow of people and goods. For example, in mid-Suffolk, European Union funds helped to fund improvements to the A14 at Haughley, straightening the route and eliminating a notorious accident blackspot on the main road between the Midlands and the huge container port at Felixstowe.
Liberal Democrats have, in the past, been cowed into taking a defensive position on Europe by those who accuse us of being fanatically pro-European. Yes, we do believe in Europe and in greater cooperation, but not at any cost. The argument has to be won, and we need to be willing to talk about the good that comes from Europe, as well as the bad.
In Needham Market yesterday, a voter told me that he was opposed to Europe, and didn't see what we got in return. So I mentioned the A14 project, and pointed out that there was a sign stating that the project had benefited from EU funds. He was surprised, and felt that perhaps the sign should be bigger (and perhaps it should). Now I'm not going to claim to have changed his mind, but perhaps he won't be so quick to condemn in future. And if we can get EU funding for improving the key rail route from Felixstowe to Nuneaton (via Needham Market and Stowmarket, let us not forget), maybe he'll have something else to think about.
And for any UKIP voters out there who might be reading this, think about this. You sent them to Brussels last time, and did it change anything? Did they achieve anything apart from having one of their number get arrested for nineteen counts of benefit fraud? Although, in fairness, their difficulties with expenses (Tom Wise, anyone?) almost compare favourably to those of the Conservatives. And as for Labour, well they clearly didn't get it either...
On the other hand, Liberal Democrat MEPs have campaigned successfully against attempts to restrict civil liberties, in favour of lower roaming charges for mobile phone users in Europe, and spoken out for greater transparency in decision making processes. They have also published a code of conduct which is binding on all of our sitting MEPs and candidates, requiring the publication of their expense claims in full. The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that it was published a year ago.
So, if you believe in a better, fairer, freer Europe, you know where to put your cross. Just look for the bird of liberty...