March 27, 2014 6:25 pm

The courage of Clegg on Europe

UK’s Lib Dem leader has impressed with his defence of EU

Unpopularity can liberate a politician. Aware that he and his Liberal Democrats can scarcely sink any lower in the polls, Nick Clegg, Britain’s deputy prime minister, made the case for the EU in a television debate on Wednesday. His opponent was Nigel Farage, the leader of the fringe UK Independence party. A maligned figure making an unpopular argument against a plausible demagogue always spelt defeat and, sure enough, a snap poll showed that viewers favoured Mr Farage.

However, Mr Clegg can console himself with two thoughts. His party’s political strategy is to maximise its support among the fifth of the electorate who have what are now invariably called “metropolitan” views and therefore possess an internationalist outlook. He appealed to them in the debate; the hostility of other voters does not change his predicament a jot.

More than this, Mr Clegg has served his country’s public life. Years have passed since any prominent politician in Britain made a sustained and full-throated argument in favour of EU membership. David Cameron, the prime minister, indulges his Conservative party’s europhobia, even if he only shares some of it. Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour opposition, is a pro-European but, with an eye on the polls, he tends not to shout about it. Boris Johnson, the London mayor, is also more pragmatic on Europe than he lets on to fellow Tories.

In the business world, too, there has been a reluctance to speak up. Companies that campaigned for British membership of the euro, only to see that currency almost fall apart in the recent crisis, understandably feel burnt by the experience.

The result of all this timidity among pro-Europeans is a field left clear for the likes of Ukip. And so sloppy eurosceptic arguments go without rebuttal. Baseless fears – especially about immigration – are stoked. Mr Clegg has made a plucky start in retaliating against all this but he cannot do it alone.

If Britons are to vote in favour of remaining inside the EU in a future referendum – and Mr Cameron has promised one in 2017 – then pro-Europeans must have the courage of their currently submerged convictions. The case they make to the public should not be naive and whitewashed: there is much wrong with the EU, and it may yet evolve in such a way as to force Britain into the invidious choice between joining the eurozone to retain influence or leaving entirely.

But the benefits of membership should be spelt out for a nation that has come to take them for granted. Mr Clegg itemised them: access to the world’s largest single market; the ability to look giants such as China in the eye and negotiate trade deals with them on equal terms; the capacity to fight cross-border problems such as organised crime; the right to live and work almost anywhere on the continent. And the sheer risk and uncertainty of leaving, so profound that Britain’s traditional allies in other parts of the world can scarcely believe we are flirting with the idea, was bluntly stated too.

Mr Clegg was mocked for even sharing a platform with the leader of a party with no MPs. But as the continent has witnessed in recent years, populists prosper when mainstream politicians do not challenge them. With his expensive education and pan-European stock, Mr Clegg strikes some as remote and snooty. But perhaps because he has so little to lose, he is actually happier to get his hands dirty than other politicians, and to some effect. Mr Farage flailed unconvincingly when pressed on matters of substance; and he revealed the darker edges of his euroscepticism when he said Brussels had “blood on its hands” for provoking Russia into Ukraine. Intellectually, the case for Brexit has a soft underbelly. Mr Clegg has valiantly led the way in exposing it. Others must follow him.

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