Former British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg returned to his first political home of Brussels on Wednesday (16 March) to challenge Brexiteers to come up with a “clear answer” on what would happen next to a UK that left the European Union.
Clegg, who began his political career as as an aide to EU Commissioner Leon Britton, before becoming an MEP and then returning to Britain to lead the Liberal Democrats and become deputy PM, was speaking before an invited audience of the British Chamber of Commerce and Liberal Democrats in Brussels.
As polls on the in/out referendum appear volatile with around 100 days to go to the 23 June polling day, Clegg said the onus was on those who want to leave the EU – and the status quo – to explain what would happen next.
He said, “It is incumbent on those who want to change the status quo. They need to be challenged.
“You can’t get a clear answer [from them] about what would happen next.”
That appears to be emerging as one of the key lines of the ‘in’ camp, after a fairly lacklustre start to the campaign saw them focus on jobs, the economy and David Cameron’s renegotiation deal without gaining much media traction.
Clegg joked that the ‘out’ campaign had gone through a list of alternative scenarios “from Iceland to Switzerland to Norway to Greenland to Canada to even Andorra”, without settling on a plausible alternative model to membership of the 28-member bloc.
But he refused to be drawn when euractiv.com asked the MP for a prediction of the result – or even an estimate of turnout, which could be key – saying, “I’m not in the prediction business, I’m in the advocacy business.”
Clegg also lambasted the unofficial leader of the ‘out’ campaign, London Mayor Boris Johnson, for suggesting a planned trip next month by US President Barack Obama to the UK to signal Washington’s support for EU membership was out of order.
“I would find it bizarre if Obama didn’t have an opinion,” he told questioners.
But Clegg again dismissed a Sun newspaper story that the Queen favoured a ‘Brexit’ as “wholly fictional, complete garbage, bilge” – although left some ambiguity by adding “…the idea that I would offer a sermon [on the EU], or she would deign to respond.”
Clegg did admit that there was “not the same emotional glue” connecting Britain to the EU, as countries which had either been invaded by Nazi Germany during World War II, or – like Spain and Greece – had joined the bloc after experiencing military dictatorships.
The UK has more of a “pragmatic shrug of the shoulders” attitude, and there is “nothing wrong with prosaic pragmatism”, he said.
After an ‘out’ vote, Britain would be a “splintered country drifting somewhere in the mid-Atlantic”, he warned. “That is not a great future for a great country.”
Responding to the speech, UKIP MEP Margot Parker commented: “I was not surprised to see the eurocrats welcome home their prodigal son with open arms yesterday.
“Clegg has made a handsome career out of misleading the British people on the EU and it is clear he does not want to stop yet.
“Clegg’s audition to be our next EU Commissioner is going swimmingly, bar one fact; Brexit will leave one less Commissioner come 2019, so Clegg will have to put his begging bowl away.”