The former Liberal Democrat leader talks tough on immigration, the Single Market—and how the Brexit timetable could be shiftedby Tom Clark and Alex Dean / July 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
In their darkest hour, pro-Europeans are looking for someone to help them keep the faith. The former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg should be well placed to be that person. Half Dutch, with a Spanish wife and six languages to his name, Clegg is the embodiment of a modern European man. He spent his early career working for Commissioner Leon Brittan in Brussels, and was then in the European Parliament. His political connections stretch across the continent, enabling him to understand the view from other European capitals.
When we sat down with him by the Thames, however, Clegg sounded like his faith was faltering. The European project is battling, as he put it, “existential challenges,” which could “of course” cause it to collapse entirely.
Eight wearing years have passed since the cheerful young Clegg wowed the nation in the election debates. But the tone of anxiety is not the product of those grinding and sometimes humiliating years of coalition, or even the more recent experience of losing his seat at the 2017 election.
No, his dark tone is much newer. His recent book, How To Stop Brexit, teasingly described his British -compatriots as parochial, insular and semi-detached Europeans. For Clegg, we never really understood the visionary purpose of the continentals, only signing up in the 1970s as “a half-hearted punt that we might be able to reduce the price of butter.”
As late as last autumn, when that book came out, Clegg had dared to hope, in the wake of Emmanuel Macron’s election victory in France, that the populist moment was beginning to pass. It seemed to him then reasonable to hope that, as part of that wider passing of populism, the Brexit error would soon be exposed and that a slap of reality would bring Britain back to its senses.
Now Clegg is much less confident about where Europe is headed, and it’s not hard to see why. He had just returned from Germany where Angela Merkel was having trouble with the anti-immigrant right.
He admits to being anxious about Europe and the frailty of liberal democracy as a whole. Trump’s rampant nationalism, Italy’s fall to populist government and authoritarian leaders in eastern Europe are gnawing at him almost as much as Brexit.
He discerned a chilling rise in “tooth and claw nationalism, protectionism, blaming ‘the other,’ and strongman politics.”
Clegg said he now takes populism “deadly seriously.” He sees the continent—and its liberal values—facing the gravest threat. He is beginning to sound less like the cheerful optimist described by the Guardian in 2010 as “alarmingly young, boyish and eager,” and more like his Liberal forebear, Edward Grey, the man who, on the eve of the First World War, looked out from the Foreign Office window and remarked: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
And that’s even before we moved to the economic challenge. Clegg once advocated, in the pages of Prospect, Britain joining the single currency. But now he sees “no way” Britain would ever want to sign up, and—more than that—he is stark about the eurozone’s structural vulnerability: “If there’s another major economic crisis that hits the eurozone in the next few years, it has basically got no weapons in its armoury.”
Asked whether it could all fall to pieces, he responded: “Of course it could, of course it could.” “Monetary union,” he said, “is in a very dangerous place.” He was alarmed by the continuing failure to couple it to proper pooling of fiscal risk: “It’s like crossing a street and stopping halfway.”
A positive case for Remain?
At moments, we almost began to wonder if Clegg was going to come out with the Brexiteer phrase about the UK “being shackled to an EU corpse.” But he didn’t—and however worried he may be about the frailty of European co-operation, he is as deeply convinced as ever about its fundamental desirability. He is still certain that Brexit is a profound act of folly and he is still dedicating all his political energy to getting the clock stopped before departure day on 29th March 2019. Although he put the chances of success at only “around 25 per cent,” he found a dash of the old optimism by adding that this chance is “gently rising.” Clegg was speaking to us before David Davis and Boris Johnson both quit, but he will be further emboldened about the odds as the Tory saga unfolds. If Britain is becoming ungovernable, then you’d have thought that must boost the odds of it changing course.
But how, exactly, could Britain change its mind at this late hour? And, seeing as he is adamant that there won’t be any rethink without a promise of EU reform, how does he envisage making such a promise credible? Does he really think Europe can overhaul itself, given all the turmoil it’s going through? And does he seriously believe that a repentant UK could be in a position to catalyse that?
Clegg gave a positive answer to that final question, but we suspect that’s what he feels he has to say. He is more world-weary than many Remainers, some of whom he thinks can be utopian in their assumption that Britain can simply return to a pre-referendum world. Whether we ultimately stay in or not, that moment is gone. As with “anything in life,” he says, “you can never turn back the clock.” Britain’s future will not be like the past. It must forge a new way in Europe.
But first Clegg needed to explain how the exit process, which for now is still moving remorselessly towards its conclusion, can be halted. Since a huge weight is attached to the “will of the people,” he conceded that this will not be easy—but insists that it might be done.
The first crunch will come in the autumn, when MPs are presented with the government’s final exit package. They must “withhold their consent.” This might well “lead to the resignation” of the prime minister; “There will be ructions within the two larger parties in Westminster.” A full-on political realignment? “There might be.” You could hear Clegg the cautious centrist almost willing a full-on crisis.
For it is only amid wider upheaval that he thinks the grim certainties could begin to crack. One is the timetable: the whole rhythm of Britain’s frenzied politics is now dictated by the ticking down of the Article 50 clock; once it runs out in March, Britain will be firmly out in the cold.
The Article 50 timetable
“is not an immutable one”
Probably permanently out in the cold too, because if the timer runs out, the UK will lose all its current rebates and opt-outs, so London would be asking for membership on worse terms than before, something which would make it almost impossible to win the British people round. Clegg’s voice became urgent as he called for a rethink before next spring.
But if—following the Commons voting down the deal—the UK pressed pause, then Clegg insisted that the EU27 would concede that the Article 50 timetable “is not an immutable one” and “could be shifted.” (He bases that assessment on private assurances from European leaders.) But once you have more time, what then?
This is where the much-mooted second referendum comes in. Clegg is no fan of plebiscites, having been against the original Brexit vote. But he said he had gone on the recent “people’s vote” march through London. Why? Because “you can’t countermand a vote of the British people other than with a vote from the British people.” There is no way that this second vote could take place before March—that hope, Clegg said, is “for the birds.”
Everything in his plan hinges on securing the all-important delay; only then can the UK reconsider its options in consultation with Europe, explore and explain these to the public, and—after months, possibly even years—run the vote which might reverse Brexit.
Another reason to go slowly is that Clegg feels Britain currently lacks the politicians who could lead a rethink. May is “not a bad person but she’s a technocrat;” Corbyn “hasn’t changed his mind about anything” since 1973. So out of the ashes of crisis “new political leaderships” will have to emerge, who would need “to find their feet,” not by pretending they can just reinvent pre-referendum reality, but in setting out how they could change it.
For that to happen, the EU27, or a sufficient number of them, would also have to indicate they were “open-minded about trying to work out how to find a bridge.” Is that realistic? “It’s a lot to ask for,” Clegg admitted. “But one has to live in hope that this vacuum will be filled at some point by people who are prepared to put the country first.”
What happens if we stay in?
If we follow Clegg this far down his imagined road back to remain, then what would he actually do next? Given those “existential threats to European integration itself,” Clegg said, “we need to do something big and bold.” But what? He deems greater integration within the eurozone necessary, but accepts that’s not something Britain can lead on; the UK role here is to get out of the way, and “help Macron out” as he brokers a compromise between Europe’s rich north and its indebted south.
One area where Britain might help, Clegg thinks, is immigration. “I think there’s a tendency in the bien pensant world of highbrow magazines [he glanced in our direction with a smile] to hope that somehow this storm will pass. It will not, and so any new package of reform must be genuinely different.” OK, but what?
Clegg’s big idea is to call time on freedom of movement in its current form which, in his view, is untenable. Here we have “Mr Europe,” in essence, calling for less Europe, and also one of our leading liberals suggesting public policy should take more account of where an individual happens to come from. But unlike liberals outside politics, Clegg is a man who has confronted the challenge of winning votes. “We have,” he said, “to act on clear public anxiety.”
What would he propose? All David Cameron could secure before the referendum was some restrictions to the duty to pay EU nationals in-work benefits.
“I think you can add to that one really important step, which is very new, if controversial.” In exceptional circumstances, member states should be permitted to impose “quantitative restrictions on intra-EU immigration… in other words there’s an emergency brake.”
This was sought, and not won, by Cameron; Clegg believes the EU, under unprecedented strain, would today be more open to the idea. Macron for his part is a “slightly isolated figure” in European politics, and Merkel has her own domestic problems. So both should be newly open to giving Britain a helping hand.
The question of refugees from outside Europe is legally separate, but June witnessed a 4am EU summit scramble to re-write the rules which assume asylum claims must be placed in the first EU country arrived in; that may illustrate a new mood on the continent.
Clegg seems to spy an opportunity amid the new panic about unregulated migration. There is, he explained, “no such thing as hermetically sealed borders.” It is time to warn voters, he said, that “Brexit would lead to the flinging open of the back door in Ireland,” something which could mean entirely “uncontrolled immigration.”
Stern warnings about uncontrolled back doors into the country are something more often associated with the Conservative right or even Ukip than Liberal Democrats. But here is one of several signs that Clegg, in his -single-minded fixation on stopping Brexit, is beginning to entertain some unusual, and perhaps unholy, alliances.
The late Labour leader John Smith comes to mind. Though a staunch pro-European who wanted to end British opt-outs on the social chapter, the pragmatic Smith was perfectly happy to ally with hardline Conservative Eurosceptics to try and see off John Major’s approach to Maastricht. Clegg seems to be thinking in much the same way.
Certainly, you might read that into a tweet he sent as May’s Chequers plan was coming unstuck: “I hate to say it, ” he wrote, but “Brexiters would be right to reject PM’s plan.” He is determined to stand against May’s softening Brexit, even if that means temporarily standing with the Europhobic hardliners.
A necessary complexity
Clegg is still, he said, a progressive radical—a supporter, for example, of the legalisation of drugs. He is committed to ripping up Britain’s voting system and has pushed the early “recall” of rogue MPs. In office, he was unsuccessfully fixated on democratising the Lords—so it is a surprise to learn that when it comes to Europe, he sees the overhaul of decision making as a second-order concern.
Yes, he conceded, the process can be cumbersome, but this is the necessary price for taking democratic account of what every member state had to say. He dismisses the likes of Wolfgang Münchau who see Europe as beset by a sclerosis that the UK staying would make worse. The idea that Europe can’t make decisions when it has to is “a very lazy Anglo-Saxon view, it’s not true… I just don’t buy the idea that it’s static.”
Nor was he much taken with Chris Bickerton, who in this month’s issue of Prospect argues argues there is an inherent disconnect between Europe and its citizens. Yes the EU can be “slightly cumbersome,” he said, but “precisely because it’s got so many checks and balances.”
The Commission and the Council, he said, mostly do their difficult job well enough, and if there is one part of the structure he has less patience with, it is the only one citizens vote for directly—the European Parliament.
Wide veto powers, he said, were sometimes used in a posturing way, and not exercised with sufficient “maturity.” All this confirms that the old federalist dream, harboured for so long by many on the continent but also by Lib Dems at home, has faded away.
Where, then, is the old radicalism of the liberal tradition? In a period of immense upheaval—where certainties are being smashed, and rules rewritten—doesn’t the Clegg formula really just re-purpose small-c conservatism? He didn’t entirely disown that suggestion, remarking that, in a country about to throw away the advantages accrued through relationships nurtured over 40 years, defending what we’ve got might be in order.
The truth he said, as he cheekily borrowed a line from one big-C Conservative, is that Britain already enjoys a phenomenally good “cake-and-eat-it” deal. Of all the black marks against Cameron’s “terrible” record on Europe, Clegg suggested his biggest failure was not communicating this: “It’s extraordinary. What other club would give you ‘yes you can be in the single market but not in Schengen, yes you can be in a customs union but not in the single currency?’”
Britain’s triumph in Europe
So, perhaps in this Brexit moment, even passionate pro-Europeans like Clegg are reduced to a politics of “holding on to what you’ve got.” Did he still harbour more positive dreams about Europe? That prodded Clegg out of his defensive crouch. There is, he said, suddenly “a huge opportunity” to work with the EU on defence and digital integration. There is “so much you could do through collective action to remedy that.” European countries can collectively find solutions, and British membership helps that process “massively.”
As he began packing up his things, he stopped, and said: “One of the many, many layers of tragedy and irony, it never fails to both surprise and sadden me, is that a country that was a late entrant into the European community, actually became an extraordinarily effective leader and shaper of that club. It was a great British triumph.” He despaired: “We constantly fail to give ourselves credit for what we managed to do.”
Perhaps the biggest problem lies in the story Britain tells—or has failed to tell—about itself. Even when leading on the inside, we thought of ourselves as outsiders. As a result, as things stand, we’re currently set to exit the club next year. But the fight is not done yet. At least, not while “Mr Europe” still draws breath.