Britain's Clegg warns of isolation from EU

11th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg opened up tensions in the coalition government Sunday, warning that the country risks becoming an international "pygmy" after vetoing a new European Union treaty.

The leader of the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats spoke out despite a poll showing public support for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to stay out of deal aimed at solving the eurozone debt crisis.

Clegg had at first publicly backed the prime minister after Friday's EU summit in Brussels, but he broke ranks on Sunday and said he had told Cameron the outcome was "bad for Britain".

"I am bitterly disappointed by the outcome of last week's summit, precisely because I think there is now a real danger that over time the United Kingdom will be isolated and marginalised within the European Union," Clegg told BBC TV.

He also hit out at so-called "eurosceptic" elements among Cameron's Conservatives who are now pushing for Britain to hold a referendum on its troubled membership of the EU.

"I think a Britain which leaves the EU will be considered to be irrelevant by Washington and will be considered a pygmy in the world," he said.

But he denied that the Conservative-led coalition, which took power in 2010 with a mission to cut Britain's record deficit with a string of tough austerity measures, would now collapse.

"It would be even more damaging for us as a country if the coalition government were now to fall apart, that would create economic disaster for the country at a time of great economic uncertainty," he said.

Britain opted out of an agreement by the other 26 EU states to join a "new fiscal compact" at an all-night summit in Brussels on Friday, angering much of Europe in the process as it tries to prop up the euro.

Cameron said he wielded his veto against a full-blown change of the EU's treaty after other leaders rejected his attempts to secure safeguards for Britain's crucial financial services industry.

Clegg, whose wife is Spanish, said Cameron's position had partly been forced by "intransigence from France and Germany" as well as from anti-Europe elements within his own party.

Foreign Minister William Hague, a leading eurosceptic and former Conservative leader, rejected Clegg's comments on marginalisation but agreed that the coalition was safe for now.

"Although some of those different views about Europe have come to the fore in the last couple of days, the Liberal Democrats are very clear as we are that the coalition continues and that's in the vital interest of this country," he told Sky News.

A poll by the eurosceptic Mail on Sunday newspaper showed 62 percent support for Cameron's decision and 66 percent backing for a referendum on Britain's role in the EU.

Cameron has not ruled out such a vote but is keen to avoid it, partly because of the damage it could do to the coalition with the centrist Lib Dems, who are not the natural bedfellows of his centre-right Conservatives.

Another senior Lib Dem, Business Secretary Vince Cable, openly warned that Britain was left in a "bad place", echoing concerns from some business leaders that London will now be unable to stop new financial regulations.

"I am not criticising the prime minister personally. Our policy was a collective decision by the coalition. We finished in a bad place," he told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes further inflamed tensions on Saturday by telling Conservative eurosceptics hoping to use this moment to renegotiate Britain's ties with Europe to "calm down".

In Germany, Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann said Sunday that the EU summit represented "progress" towards resolving the debt crisis, but stood firm in his opposition to a greater role for the European Central Bank.

"Indeed I see progress in the decisions of the summit," Jens Weidmann said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung weekly.

© 2011 AFP

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