Nick Clegg has offered a robust defence of Britain’s membership of the European Union, amid warnings from Washington that the UK must not seek an exit.
Taking questions from journalists in Westminster on Thursday, the deputy prime minister said it was in Britain’s “vital national interest” to be a leading player in Brussels.
He said to leave the EU would reduce Britain to a “small” nation on the edges of power and said being part of the union was to “act big”.
“I think it’s an expression of self confidence,” he said of Britain’s continued membership. “Do we lead or do we hang back in a subsidiary status?”
And while he said the EU needed deep reform “in Britain’s image”, he said the UK could not try and re-write the fundamental principles of the institution. “You can’t be a member of a club and not be signed up to the basic rules of the club”.
The Lib Dem leader also dismissed calls from Tory backbenchers for there to be an immediate referendum on membership when there was no new treaty to be discussed. “Why would you provoke a great national debate,” he asked, when there were no immediate changes being proposed.
David Cameron is due to give a major speech on the EU this month — with many Tory MPs hoping he will commit the party to an in/out referendum should it win the 2015 election.
The speech has now taken on international significance, following the warning from the Obama administration it favoured a “strong British voice” within the EU.
Clegg joked that the prime minister would be giving his “major speech” on Britain’s membership of the EU in Holland. Playfully deriding Cameron’s more eurosceptic view, he added: “As a native Dutch speaker I will be at hand to give a translation from double-Dutch to just Dutch.”
Clegg said Cameron would be addressing the commitments the Conservative Party would be making on Europe in 2015. “He is not going to consult me on that,” he observed.
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