U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg attacked David Cameron’s plans to repatriate powers from the European Union, just hours after their parties stood united in accusing their Labour opponents of “opportunism” over Europe.
The prime minister suffered a rebellion in the House of Commons last night when 53 of his Conservative Party lawmakers voted to demand he negotiate a real-terms EU budget cut instead of his current negotiating position of an inflation-only increase. Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said today he is “as one” with Cameron on the budget, calling Labour “dishonest” and “hypocritical” for voting with the Tory rebels to defeat the government.
Even so, Clegg, who served as an EU lawmaker before entering British politics, used a speech in London to set out his wider objections to the Tories’ aim of distancing Britain from Europe, emphasizing the coalition’s differences. Cameron has pledged to seek a “fresh settlement” of the U.K.’s relationship with the EU.
“I want to focus on the proposal doing the rounds that the best way to improve the U.K.’s position in Europe is to renegotiate the terms of our relationship with the rest of the EU: We should opt out of the bad bits, stay opted in to the good bits, and the way to do that is a repatriation of British powers,” Clegg said.
“That seems very reasonable; in fact, it’s a pretty seductive offer -- who would disagree with that?” he said. “But look a little closer, because a grand, unilateral repatriation of powers might sound appealing but in reality, it is a false promise, wrapped in a Union Jack.”
The issue of Europe has dogged Cameron throughout his two-year premiership, as it did his Conservative predecessors. Splits over Europe contributed to the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and hobbled her successor, John Major. Some Tory lawmakers want to withdraw from the 27-nation bloc altogether.
The deputy prime minister made it clear he disagrees with Cameron’s plans to opt-out of 130 EU law-and-order directives and then to opt back in to some of them. Clegg said he would not ask the domestic intelligence agency, MI5, and the police to “protect the British people with one hand tied behind their back.”
Clegg also said he would not back any revision of the Lisbon Treaty to repatriate powers to Britain unless “I am 100 percent satisfied we can opt back in to the measures needed to protect British citizens, and if I am convinced we are not creating waste and duplication, incurring unnecessary costs.”
Asked by reporters today what the government’s policy was, Cameron’s spokesman, Steve Field, replied that “it’s a bit difficult for me to answer. The coalition parties have two different positions on that issue. It’s not newsworthy to say that there’s two parties and the prime minister and deputy prime minster have different views on the issue of Europe.”