Clegg Slams U.K. Tories ‘Talking to Themselves’ on Immigration

U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg criticized his Conservative coalition partners for “talking to themselves” over immigration rather than taking a lead in Europe to tackle common worries about benefit abuse.

Speaking in Berlin ahead of a speech Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is scheduled to make on immigration, Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, accused the Tories of treating concerns about migrants as a singularly British issue. The U.K. should instead focus on drumming up support in the European Union to reform so-called benefit tourism, on which Britain can “shift the dial,” he said.

“The problem with the Conservative Party at the moment is that they’re talking with themselves and they’re conducting negotiations with themselves,” Clegg told reporters. “It’s just a great irony that it’s the Conservative Party which always was the party of free trade and open economics that is now turning itself into the party of protectionism.”

Cameron, who’s promised to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and hold a referendum on whether to leave the bloc if he’s re-elected next year, has hinted he’ll seek an end to the free movement of Europeans into Britain. The Tories are under pressure from the U.K. Independence Party, to which two Conservative lawmakers have defected, and which seeks to pull out of the bloc to end free movement.

Clegg’s comments are likely to have found support today in talks with German officials. Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested last month Germany would have difficulty maintaining support to keep the U.K in the EU if Cameron crossed a red line in pushing to crimp the principles of free movement.

‘Essential Role’

The U.K. has an “essential role” in developing Europe, German Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said today following talks with Clegg. Gabriel, Germany’s deputy chancellor and leader of the Social Democrats, said he and Clegg both agreed on the need to uphold the EU’s main tenets, “especially free movement” of people.

“At the end of the day you need to make a fundamental choice -- do you defend the principle -- which by the way benefits, and has over time, millions of Brits and others,” said Clegg. “One of the benefits of this European club is being able to move about the place.”

“If only the Conservatives and others would lift their sights they’d actually see there’s an opportunity here for us to lead a process of reform rather than talk to ourselves,” he said.

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