U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is preparing for a battle over Britain’s relationship with the European Union that will see him siding with his Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, against his own lawmakers.
After a Sept. 24 private dinner for business leaders at his party’s annual conference, Clegg described opponents of Britain’s membership of the EU as “insular,” “chauvinistic” and “short-sighted.” Many of those opponents are in Cameron’s Conservative Party. More than a quarter of Tory lawmakers defied the prime minister last year to vote for a referendum on leaving the EU.
Cameron drew cheers from his own side last year when he refused to join 25 other nations in an EU-wide treaty to rescue the euro. For all that, he, like Clegg, says the U.K. should stay in the union. According to his office, he is planning to make a speech on the subject soon.
“We are not drifting somewhere hopelessly unanchored in the mid-Atlantic,” Clegg said in his own speech in Brighton on England’s south coast. “It is an illusion to think that there is a strategic future, either politically or economically, to somehow stand aside from the fray. We are condemned by history, by geography, and by our economic interdependence to our European neighbors, to seek to lead and not follow, to shape and not be shaped by events on the European continent.”
Clegg went on to predict that questions over Europe “will bedevil British politics in wholly unpredictable ways” in the coming months. He cited arguments about the EU budget or the proposed banking union as possible “catalysts” for a dispute.
One of the most dangerous areas for Cameron in dealing with his party will come in the EU budget negotiations, slated for November. At a time when the prime minister is overseeing austerity at home, any result other than a reduced contribution for the U.K. will be criticized. Also under negotiation this year are plans to introduce EU-wide rules on banking, with Britain arguing its own institutions shouldn’t be covered.
Clegg, who described himself as “arguably the most senior pro-European politician in Britain today,” warned that as members of the European single currency develop institutions that pull them closer together, it may “set off a chain reaction politically within the U.K.,” with some politicians “and certainly large parts of the press” demanding that Britain “should somehow try and pull ourselves further and further away.”