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John Stevens: Clegg should back an 'In or Out' referendum and finally resolve Britain's EU question

6a00d83451b31c69e20153919e738d970bJohn Stevens is a former Conservative Member of European Parliament who stood at the last general election as an independent candidate, against John Bercow.

My marginal political activity has nevertheless been sufficient for the mainstream experience that one’s friends are invariably a great deal more trouble than one’s enemies. This is one reason I am so glad, occasionally, to be permitted to post on this site. Nothing, however, had quite prepared me for the Deputy Prime Minister’s article on Europe in yesterday’s Observer. In what is, of course, a hotly contested field, he has tested, yet further, the envelope of evasion.

He states:

“So far the debate has been dominated by two extremes. On the one hand there are some who see an opportunity for a more centralised EU, built around a tighter, quasi-federalist core. On the other are those who imagine a chance for the UK to draw away the union. They relish the prospect of a unilateral raid on Brussels’ powers. The irony is that both options require treaty change: Europhiles and Europhobes are asking for the same thing. As always, neither extreme of the argument is right. Both would have the UK give up our place at the European top table, sacrificing the influence essential for our prosperity.”

Despite the tell-tale phrases signifying New Labour-style triangulation, this is astonishingly opaque. Is he saying that now he and his Party have abandoned any ambition for Britain to join the euro, everyone should shut up and accept the status quo? Leaving aside his confusion between federalism and centralisation (which might explain the Liberal Democrats' polling in Scotland), surely he must see that, given what is happening in the eurozone, the only way of being “at the European top table” would be for Britain to be in the Monetary Union? How, for instance, will Britain, as he says, “push with all its might to deepen the Single Market” if we are retaining, indefinitely, our right to impose, in effect, a tariff against our core partners through devaluation? What will we do when the “fast diminishing” “smaller club” of non-euro states leaves us as its only member?

As with his pledge on tuition fees, Mr Clegg has allowed his opportunism to trump his principles. He is a latter-day Lord Strafford. He has recanted on his commitment to the euro at precisely the moment when one key argument in its favour, the risk of British isolation, is becoming apparent, and has placed himself, and his Party in an utterly untenable position, of no use to either those who want more British engagement with Europe, or those who want less. As always, clarity and patriotism are with those who want a real debate and a proper decision, not those who are running away. The euro crisis is destroying the fence upon which a self-serving establishment has been parked for a generation. That is why the Prime Minister’s attempted show of strength last week with the substantial withdrawalist element in his Party (which some former Blairite commentator ludicrously compared to a “Clause Four Moment”), was so ill-advised.

The Coalition’s protestations will not re-assure the markets, nor our partners, of Britain’s place in Europe. They merely prolong the period in which our national policy is enveloped in uncertainty and characterised by weakness. It is increasingly recognised in Berlin and Paris that the Prime Minister and his Deputy are determined, by default, to allow Britain to drift, towards ill-defined, semi-detached, dependent status in which our relationship with the EU would be virtually indistinguishable from non-members such as Norway or Switzerland. Why should they, therefore, bother to engage in any serious negotiations with us, upon our vital interests? This sorry state of affairs is already leading, for example, to a catastrophic loss of influence over the measures, linked to the stabilisation of the eurozone, for the regulation, taxation and location of financial services: of mortal interest to the City of London.

If Mr Clegg were true to his previously stated convictions, he would put his weight behind those calling now for an IN or OUT referendum on Britain’s EU membership in this Parliament. He would force Mr Cameron and all those Conservatives who do not favour leaving the Union, and, above all, the significant economic pro-European interests in the country, to join him in the IN campaign, and to make the case for our being whole-hearted Europeans, which they have all hitherto so signally failed to do over so many years. What has he to lose? And what has Mr Cameron to lose? For the Prime Minister must know that nothing less will resolve the deep division which now runs through his Party. That, indeed, would be his “Clause Four Moment”, without which his own power, and more important the power of this Nation, will inexorably drain away.


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