In his acceptance speech – just over five years ago – after Nick Clegg had just been narrowly chosen as the next leader of the Liberal Democrats, he said that he is a “liberal by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing”. But if those influences make him a liberal, they also make him, arguably to a far greater extent, probably the most pro-European of Britain’s senior politicians. Europe is a subject on which Clegg can speak with the authority of someone who is at least as comfortable, if not more so, in Brussels as he is in Westminster.
Today’s Guardian, in the first of a series of pieces to mark Britain’s accession to the EEC nearly 40 years ago, carries a long interview with Clegg on the subject.
He talks of the past:
Clegg says the lesson of the past 40 years – and indeed of previous centuries – is that British interests are intimately bound up with playing a leading role in Europe. “It’s important to remember that at every point when there has been a fork in the road about whether Britain should retreat or lead, when we have led we have always surprised ourselves and others about how successfully we can lead,” he says.
“This isn’t of course just a 20th-century sort of dilemma. Actually how an island nation such as ours makes its presence felt in our European hemisphere is something which has characterised our history and our foreign policy for centuries.
“The ebb and flow of how Britain has participated or intervened in European wars and royal successions and power play in many ways has been the story of our whole history. I think we should just remember, 40 years after we joined the EEC, our astonishing record of successful leadership.”
And of the present:
Clegg is full of praise for the prime minister, who played a dominant role at recent EU summits on the budget and banking union. “The outcome … was curiously actually a rather good example of effective British diplomacy and leadership,” Clegg says of the banking union meeting, which agreed to hand regulatory powers for about 200 of the eurozone’s largest banks to the European Central Bank. Britain managed to ensure that the 17 eurozone members will not be able to “caucus” in the European Banking Authority, which oversees financial regulation across the EU.
But there are limits to Clegg’s admiration for the prime minister. He recently described Cameron’s plans to repatriate powers to Britain as a “false promise wrapped in a union jack” and does not believe the prime minister’s idea of holding a referendum meets the “smart” test for Britain. Cameron is expected to use a long-awaited speech on the EU early in the new year to outline plans to hold a referendum if he succeeds in repatriating powers in a revision of the Lisbon treaty to underpin new eurozone governance rules.
If there is one element that I’d like to see discussed at more length it’s how pro-Europeans should be leading to reform the EU – opposing the protectionism of some of our close neighbours, extending the single market. It was, after all, a certain Nick Clegg who called on the EU (pdf) to “do less to do more”.
You can read the interview in full here.
* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.