Lib Dem leader argues that it is not in Britain’s best interests to exploit the eurozone crisis to win back powers from Brussels
Nick Clegg is mounting a direct challenge to David Cameron by ruling out any moves to repatriate powers to Britain from the EU while eurozone leaders are struggling to save the single currency. As William Hague outlined plans for a fundamental review of Britain’s relations with the EU, Clegg made clear that Britain should not attempt to exploit forthcoming EU negotiations.
“The idea that at the time when there is a crisis in the eurozone that you go to Brussels and demand a sackload of powers and bring them back on the Eurostar is for the birds,” one Liberal Democrat source said.
The warning was reinforced in stronger language by Charles Kennedy, who responded to Hague’s statement by hitting out at Tories who are bent on “holding the EU to ransom”.
The split over the EU came amid continuing coalition tensions over reform of the House of Lords. The Lib Dems expressed irritation after a senior cabinet minister told Tory MPs that the junior coalition partners should settle for the removal of the 92 hereditary peers and elections to replace them in 2015.
“We are not going to give a running commentary on the many Tory ideas we will be hearing over the summer,” one Lib Dem source said. Clegg has agreed with Cameron that the government should make one last push on on the issue in the autumn.
But they disagree on how the bill should be amended. The Lib Dems are becoming less hostile to the idea of a referendum to win over the Labour party and a sizeable proportion of the 91 Tory MPs who rebelled against the bill on Tuesday.
Clegg believes the rebellion shows that many Tory MPs are unlikely ever to be reconciled to the coalition. “There are many Tories who cannot stand the coalition and cannot come to terms with the fact they lost the election,” one senior party figure said. “That is a problem for David that he has to deal with.”
An emboldened Clegg is flexing his muscles by letting Cameron know that Britain will not serve its interests by trying to exploit EU treaty negotiations for its own ends. This indicates that the prime minister will struggle to deliver a recent commitment to place British demands on the table if a fresh round of EU treaty negotiations are held to agree new governance arrangements for the eurozone.
Britain is not a member of the 17-strong single currency but it will have a veto in any EU-wide treaty negotiations.
The foreign secretary started to prepare the ground for a possible renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU when he outlined a review of how the “balances of EU competences” affect Britain. In a statement to MPs, Hague said: “The review will be an audit of what the EU does and how it affects us in the United Kingdom. It will look at where competence lies, how the EU’s competences, whether exclusive, shared or supporting, are used and what that means for our national interest.”
Clegg has been heavily involved in drawing up the the terms of the review of the EU treaty which was part of a compromise agreement between the Tories and Lib Dems in the coalition agreement. But the parties have different aims for the review: the Lib Dems hope it will encourage reforms by the EU as a whole; the Tories hope it will help form the basis for Britain’s negotiating position if Cameron seeks the repatriation of powers to Britain as the price for signing an EU-wide treaty on eurozone reforms.
Charles Kennedy, the former Lib Dem leader, delivered the party’s formal response. In a statement, he said: “As the foreign secretary said, our EU membership is firmly in the national interest. This review will help inform people about our positive agenda for Europe by providing a constructive and serious British-led contribution to the wider European debate about how to modernise, reform and improve the EU.
“We are already delivering major positive EU-wide reforms such as devolving powers over fisheries policy, dramatically lifting the burden of regulation on small businesses and strengthening MPs’ involvement in EU affairs at home. There is much more we want to deliver.
“But holding the EU to ransom as some want to do simply does not work. We will be left without a UK seat at the table, unable to stand up for the UK’s interests when neighbouring countries make separate agreements on growth and financial services, and powerless over serious cross-border issues like pollution, climate change or organised crime. That is not standing up for Britain.”