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LDEG's Antony Hook interviews Nick Clegg MP

September 17, 2009 11:15 AM

Nick Clegg has answered searching questions posed by the Liberal Democrat European Group on the eve of the 2009 conference in Bournemouth. Part of the interview has already been published in the LDEG members' Newsletter. Here is the interview in full with questions concerning Nick's vision of the future of Europe, the Lisbon Treaty, economic factors, bank regulations, the environment, being pro-European, elections, and LDEG's future role.

Q. What's your vision for the future of Europe?

The EU is the most sophisticated response to the challenges of globalisation anywhere in the world - based on the realisation that nation-states do not maintain their sovereignty by standing aside from their neighbours or by rejecting international bonds; they maintain it by engaging with neighbours and working with them for common aims. We can't tackle climate change on our own - we need the EU's members to take a lead together. The financial crisis laid bare the need for European co-operation on regulating financial services. If we want to deal with cross-border crime, the EU is our best tool. And in a world where China, Russia and India's influence is growing and where Europe's challenges come more and more from outside its borders, we need a strong European voice on the world stage.

At the moment, the EU is seen by too many in Britain as part of the gap between people and power in Europe - part of a sense that democratic control is slipping away. But the EU can actually be a way of giving power back to people, allowing their representatives to exercise real control over issues which affect their lives. I want to see an EU focused on delivering for its people on those issues - on climate change, on the financial crisis, on cross-border crime - and one which people can see as a way of closing the democratic deficit, not widening it.

Q. What are the three most important reasons in your mind for ratification of the Lisbon Treaty?

First of all, the Lisbon Treaty would make Europe more accountable to the people it serves. Giving more powers to elected MEPs, making the Council of Ministers meet in public when making laws and allowing a million people to require the Commission consider new laws represent a major step forward for democracy in the EU - and Liberal Democrats have called for greater democracy at EU level for years.

Second, Lisbon would make the EU institutions more efficient in a Union of 27 - and, hopefully, soon to be 28, 29 or more - member states. If Britain wants action on the issues which concern it - energy liberalisation, say, or reform of the CAP - we need the EU to be able to function effectively. At the moment, we run the risk of paralysis. Crucially, in particular, the new institutions for foreign and security policy would allow the EU to be more cohesive in areas where we agree.

Finally, though, I hope that after Lisbon we can move on from the old debate about institutions. Of course, that debate is an important one - but we must never forget that it's ultimately a debate about how to deliver better policies, how to implement them more effectively and how to make sure Europe can get on with making life better for its people. Once the debate over Lisbon is settled, we need to move on to improving Europe's policies rather than its treaties.

Q. Should banks be regulated at a European level?

We certainly need tighter regulation of the City and the banking system and the EU has a major role to play. Labour and the Conservatives have resisted proper regulation for decades - leading to record levels of debt and playing a large role in our current economic crisis. The EU is vital in helping to get a grip on the behaviour of credit institutions. In particular, we need more co-operation between national financial services authorities and the European Central Bank.

Q. Should we join the Euro in the next 5 years?

The euro has held up better than sterling in the financial crisis and has become a major reserve currency for many countries outside Europe. As LDEG members will know, the Liberal Democrats believe that it is in Britain's ultimate interest to be part of the euro. Membership of the single currency would help Britain improve economic stability and boost trade and investment.

I don't think we can set a date on this at the moment. Britain should join when the economic conditions are right, provided the British people vote 'Yes' in a referendum. Having said that, I do think that the financial crisis and the impact it's had on the British economy means that the arguments are changing, though - the massive devaluation of sterling and our degree of exposure to fluctuations in financial services make the argument for membership of the eurozone increasingly strong.

Q. Do you support a law for civil partnerships made in one EU member state to be recognised in all member states?

I know that Sharon Bowles has been doing great work on this and I think it's crucial that all EU citizens should be able to exercise their rights regardless of sexual orientation. It's very clear that we need to push for mutual recognition of civil partnerships and equivalent relationships across Europe. Of course, Liberal Democrats also support introducing same-sex marriage in the UK.

Q. Why do you think Labour oppose a European-wide charter of safeguards for defendants in criminal proceedings? Would such a charter answer public concerns when a British citizen is arrested or tried in another EU state?

Labour have never had the courage to make the case for European co-operation in general, and certainly not in criminal matters. Furthermore, their record at home has of course been deeply illiberal - so it's not surprising that their lack of concern for British freedoms spreads to their policy at EU level.

I very much support action to establish common rights in criminal proceedings across the EU - so that British nationals arrested in another European country have the right to a lawyer, legal aid and an interpreter. Of course, this has been a problem in cases such as that of the British plane spotters arrested in Greece in 2001. I think this would go a long way towards addressing civil liberties, as opposed to simple Eurosceptic concerns about the current operation of the European Arrest Warrant - since the UK's standards in this field are generally higher than those of most other member states.

Q. What should Europe aim to achieve at Copenhagen in December?

I think we have a real chance of progress at Copenhagen - and we need to seize it. The election of President Obama presents both an opportunity and a challenge to the EU. Europe should aim to join forces with the United States in securing and creating a new and ambitious international treaty which includes all major industrial and developing countries. This is an area where the EU can and must lead by example, too - for instance, by extending its emissions trading scheme to include other harmful greenhouse gases and more areas of business such as shipping.

Q. Should security of access to energy, food, and other essential raw materials be a major concern and what is the right approach to it? Can Europe rely on Russia, India, or China in the long-term for resources?

Energy security is clearly an increasing concern - which is why the Liberal Democrats outlined a strategy to deliver energy independence for the UK within the EU by 2050. We need to put in place a credible strategy to meet the UK's 2020 renewables targets and source all energy requirements from within the EU by 2030 so that the country does not need to import energy from unstable regimes. In the meantime, energy liberalisation within the EU is extremely important - partially because an integrated energy market puts the EU in a much stronger position when negotiating with countries such as Russia.

With respect to trade, we believe in a liberal and open system that increases economic growth and jobs and also takes account of environmental and social standards too. The EU has a key role to play in salvaging the Doha development round of the World Trade Organisation, including eliminating trade barriers and production subsidies in agriculture. Ultimately, a strong multilateral framework is our best security - in trade as elsewhere.

Q. Are you pleased with the results of the 2009 European elections?

I think we performed well in difficult circumstances. We gained an MEP overall in a tough election and we more or less maintained our share of the vote. Having said that, I do think it's clear that the dominance of the expenses scandal in the media hampered our attempts to communicate our strong pro-European message. The devastating effect of the Telegraph's revelations on public trust in politics and politicians makes the attempt to make an argument for the EU all the more difficult. Even so, we fought a clear pro-European campaign and held our ground.

Q. How can we change the fact that our UK popular vote in European elections is as low as half of that won in this year's local elections?

I think it's important to point out that all the main parties win a smaller share of the vote in European elections than they do in local elections. This is partially a simple question of the voting system - we now very clearly have a different kind of party system at European level from the one we have elsewhere. Once again, I think the 2009 elections were fought in an especially unfortunate climate - the expenses scandal muffled much of our pro-European message - and I am ambitious to see a bold approach delivering real progress in 2014.

Q. You have set a target of 150 Lib Dem MPs in two elections. How many MEPs are we aiming for?

As many as possible! I'm delighted that we have MEPs in every region of England and also in Scotland. Next time, I really hope we'll have a Welsh MEP too. Areas like the North West and London, where we came close to winning second MEPs, also have potential. Fundamentally, as in every election, we want to increase our share of the vote and of seats - and the more we gain, the better.

Q. As Leader of the Liberal Democrat party, what would you like LDEG to do?

I think LDEG has an important role in leading the debate, both inside and outside the party, on Britain's role in Europe and on the importance of European co-operation. I think it can also play a part in thinking about how the European case can be remade in the current political climate - where our economic difficulties could potentially do much to change the nature of the argument.

Having been an influential MEP and now the leading MP in our party, do you think the party as a whole appreciates the true value of MEPs?

I'm very much aware of the good work done by MEPs and the amount of influence they have. As an MEP, I loved the ability to have a real influence on legislation that had a direct impact on the day to day lives of my constituents. It wasn't always glamorous work by any means - the work I did on telephone loop unbundling comes to mind - but it did make a real difference, helping cut telephone bills for consumers across the continent. Individual MEPs have far, far more of an opportunity to actually get laws changed and improved than most MPs. I also know from my travels up and down the country that members value their MEPs and are proud of their achievements.

Q. Should MPs and MEPs work more closely together on legislative aims, policy development, and our political strategy?

When I was Shadow Home Secretary, I worked very closely with Sarah Ludford - and I know that Liberal Democrat frontbenchers do the same with their counterparts in the European Parliament where appropriate. They have strong working relationships in their portfolios - which is extremely important and which I very much encourage.

Q. Can the party's public profile benefit from Sharon Bowles' powerful appointment as Chair of the Economics Committee?

It's certainly an immensely important appointment and one which will strengthen Liberals and Democrats across the EU, as well as the British Liberal Democrats within the European Parliament. I think Sharon's role allows us to highlight just how relevant and important European co-operation is for British prosperity today - in the aftermath of the financial crisis, it is vital to work to repair and stabilise the financial markets and supervision, curbing the excesses which have been so brutally exposed.

Q. Some people may say we should avoid talking about Europe and concentrate on other policy areas. Isn't any short term political benefit of avoidance cancelled out by deeper long term danger in giving anti-Europeans an open field?

I couldn't agree more. I am a passionate pro-European, I believe that Britain needs to work with our neighbours and I believe that those of us who believe in European co-operation need to make our voices heard. Our 2009 campaign was the most strongly pro-European campaign we have fought and I think we need to continue to make the case that Europeans really are 'stronger together, poorer apart'.

But we do need to shift the debate in other ways, too - we need to explain and explain again that being pro-European doesn't require people to abandon their critical faculties. We mustn't be frightened to lead calls for change in Europe - reforming the failed CAP and CFP, for example. We are keener than either Labour or the Conservatives for real change in the EU, precisely because we're committed to making the EU work.

Q. Tony Blair failed to lead the pro-European cause. Do you think one of your roles in history will be to provide much needed leadership for Britain's pro-Europeans?

It's hard for me to comment on my potential 'role in history'! But I do want to do everything possible to fight for pro-European ideals. It is a tragedy that Tony Blair failed so dismally in his stated ambition to put Britain at the heart of Europe and I believe that the Liberal Democrats have a vital role as the only mainstream party to understand the importance of a strong, reformed and effective Europe in the modern world.

AH. Thank you very much.