12 Dec 2011

Clegg absent as Cameron defends EU veto decision

As David Cameron makes efforts to smooth the growing Europe rift inside the coalition, Political Editor Gary Gibbon says Nick Clegg’s absence in the Commons was the key talking point earlier.

Mr Clegg said he thought his presence would have been “a distraction” as David Cameron gave his statement to the Commons earlier. But he made clear he opposed what he called Britain’s “isolation” in Europe.

The prime minister said he acted “in good faith” and had only wanted assurances that were “modest, reasonable and relevant”, rather than unfair advantages for Britain.

‘Satisfactory safeguards’

“We went seeking a deal at 27 and I responded to the German and French proposal for treaty change in good faith, genuinely looking to reach agreement at the level of the whole of the European Union,” he said. “We were not asking for a UK opt-out or special exemption or a generalised emergency brake on financial services legislation, they were safeguards sought for the EU as a whole.

“Satisfactory safeguards were not forthcoming, so I didn’t agree to the treaty. It was not the easy thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.”

He said there had been two options: “choice of a treaty without proper safeguards or no treaty at all”. But Mr Cameron denied he was “soft” on the banks, saying the government wanted to go further in regulating the financial sector than EU rules allowed.

It was not the easy thing to do, but it was the right thing to do. David Cameron

Coalition rift

Mr Cameron’s decision to veto a treaty that would have included all 27 members of the EU – the first time Britain had ever taken such strong action at a European summit – has caused a split with his deputy Nick Clegg, who was absent from the Commons chamber. Liberal Democrat sources said he had stayed away because he did not want his presence to be a distraction.

Gary Gibbon blog: Clegg gets festive concession on veto

Mr Cameron said: “I went to Brussels with one objective: to protect Britain’s national interest, and that is what I did.” But Labour leader Ed Miliband said he had “given up our seat at the table” in Europe.

“How can you expect to persuade anyone else it’s a good outcome when you can’t persuade your own deputy?”, he said. “It’s not a veto when the thing you wanted to stop goes ahead without you. That’s called losing, that’s called being defeated, that’s called letting Britain down.”

More from Channel 4 News: Europe row live blog

EU membership

The prime minister said he remained committed to Britain’s membership of the European Union. “Britain remains a full member of the European Union and the events of last week do nothing to change that. Our membership of the EU is vital to our national interest.”

“I do not believe there is a binary choice for Britain that we can either sacrifice the national interest on issue after issue or lose our influence at the heart of Europe’s negotiating process.

“I am absolutely clear that it is possible to be a both a full, committed and influential member of the EU but to stay out of arrangements where they do not protect our interests.”

He has come back with a bad deal for Britain. Labour leader Ed Miliband

Mr Miliband said: “He has come back with a bad deal for Britain. Far from protecting our interests, he has left us without a voice.” The prime minister had been “unable to point to a single proposal” in the planned treaty that threatened Britain’s financial service industry.

Mr Cameron was reporting back to the Commons on Thursday’s European summit in Brussels. Britain used its veto after failing to win safeguards for the country’s financial services sector.

Standing alone

To stop a new treaty, Mr Cameron stood alone, at odds with the leaders of the EU’s other 26 states. But the 26 said they would simply press ahead with their own accord without British involvement.

Mr Cameron’s negotiating stance has come under attack from his deputy Nick Clegg, leader of the pro-European Liberal Democrats.

‘Bad for Britain’

Mr Clegg said the result was “bad for Britain”, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme: “I’m bitterly disappointed by the outcome of last week’s summit, precisely because I think now there is a danger that the UK will be isolated and marginalised within the European Union. I don’t think that’s good for jobs, in the City or elsewhere, I don’t think it’s good for growth or for families up and down the country.”

The summit was meant to address Europe’s debt crisis. Leaders agreed a so-called ‘fiscal compact’, with automatic sanctions for states that borrow too much.

The British government does not object to others pursuing fiscal union, but wanted assurances that the City of London would not be bound by a new financial transactions tax.