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
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…