Nick Clegg has again angered Conservatives by suggesting that those seeking to renegotiate European Union rules to return powers to the UK are “fanatical”.
By Bruno Waterfield and James Kirkup
10:00PM GMT 09 Nov 2011
The Deputy Prime Minister said that any move to alter the EU’s governing treaties would be a “dangerous distraction” at a time when Europe is struggling to cope with a debt crisis.
Mr Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, also dismissed as “melodramatic” Conservative fears that closer integration between eurozone countries will lead to a two-speed Europe that imposes decisions on Britain.
As the European economic crisis grows, many Conservative MPs are demanding that the Government seeks a looser British relationship with the EU.
An EU summit in Brussels next month is due to debate possible changes to the EU treaties to accommodate German legal objections to the eurozone bail-out fund.
Some Conservatives want the Government to use negotiations about that change to seek the repatriation of control over regulations they say are hampering the British economy.
Any decision to change the treaties must be unanimous. David Cameron, who has promised to seek repatriation, has hinted at using Britain’s veto to get his way.
But speaking in Brussels yesterday, Mr Clegg warned of the “dangers of focusing huge political amounts of time and energy” on a treaty change negotiation.
Such a power struggle would be a “huge distraction” from dealing with the continent’s economic troubles, he said. “From whatever direction you come, whether you are a starry-eyed pro-European or fanatically hostile to all aspects of the EU, everybody from all sides can agree that what we need to do now is for the eurozone to deal with its immediate problems and for us to enhance growth, prosperity and jobs.
“I don’t think that anyone can reasonably say that is done or best delivered by having heads of government locked in windowless rooms in Brussels for months on end having arcane legalistic debates about treaties.”
Claiming the backing of Conservative ministers, Mr Clegg insisted: “It is not our priority.”
Bill Cash, a leading Conservative critic of the EU, said Mr Clegg’s remarks “beggar belief”.
Mr Cash said: “The Deputy Prime Minister has acquiesced and aided the creation of what the eurozone and wider European Union is now experiencing. Having swallowed European proposals hook, line and sinker, he opposes reform, opposes repatriation and opposes renegotiation. So much for reform.”
Privately, senior Conservative ministers have not ruled out using next month’s treaty change process to seek repatriation. But they believe that a wider rewriting of the EU rule book expected in the next two years will present a better opportunity.
Mr Cameron has raised fears that closer co-ordination of policies between the 17 eurozone nations could lead to Britain being shut out of important decisions and jeopardise EU single market rules.
Mr Clegg said that was “hyperbolic”. He said: “I think it is perfectly feasible for the eurozone to do what it needs to without creating a great big gulf between eurozone countries and those outside. We need to be a little bit cooler and calmer.”