Europe: Back to the Drawing Board?: Nick Clegg
Photo by Moritz Hager / World Economic Forum

Nick Clegg fits the College stereotype of someone who not only fell for Bruges during his time at the College, but also found love within the walls of the EU’s unofficial matchmaking institution. As Britain prepares to jolt away from the European Union, Clegg looks back at his time at the College and offers his thoughts on Brexit, populism and his excitement about Emmanuel Macron.

By: Sammy Kerr

The College of Europe has a proud history of its anciens going on to dominate headlines in European and national politics. One of them is Nick Clegg, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and the United Kingdom’s Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-15.

A quarter of a century has passed since Clegg left Bruges. “I can’t believe it was 25 years ago” he says. “I still keep in contact with great friends I made at the College”. A resident of Gaarenmarkt during his time, Nick Clegg speaks fondly of student life in Bruges. To him, it felt more relaxed than his time as an undergraduate at Cambridge.

Of course, any mention of the College allows him to happily recall meeting future wife Miriam González Durántez. An “intelligent, beautiful, dynamic” young woman from Spain, Clegg admits being smitten with his coursemate at once. Even over the phone, the grin on his face is evident, as he describes the language barriers that they cheerfully hurdled –  their respective lack of Spanish or English meaning that their early courtship was conducted in “pidgin French.”

Declaring Brexit a “monstrous betrayal of the hopes of young people”, Clegg repeats his belief that a second referendum is needed so that the British people can have a say on the terms of Brexit. Since the interview, the House of Lords has voted against a that proposal, preferring instead a vote in Parliament on the terms of the deal. Clegg opposes the inflexible “Old Testament” view of Brexit, currently being championed by the British Government.

“Somehow this one petition is considered to be like a tablet of stone, immutable, can never be changed, can never be questioned even if the circumstances over the next few years prove it isn’t a good thing for the country at all.”

He praises the intervention of Tony Blair in the national debate, agreeing that one of the cornerstones of any democracy is the principle of being able to change one’s mind. Clegg recently met with Emmanuel Macron and says that he sees similarities between the French  presidential candidate and the former Prime Minister. Macron is, according to Clegg, “very much cleaving to the same tradition that Tony Blair pushed hard in the 1990s” by trying to marry a belief in a competitive, open and modern economy on the one hand with beliefs in social justice, social mobility and solidarity on the other.

“Macron would be a fantastic boost for the threadbare confidence in the EU.”

Clegg’s ‘Right to Stay’ campaign advocates for the rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, but he doesn’t believe that any “mass eviction” will occur. It is rather a question of the cut-off date the Government is expected to enforce in the near future, after which EU migrants will cease to be offered the rights of previous EU citizens living in the UK.

Despite Guy Verhofstadt and the European Parliament ALDE Group’s stated desire to offer continued EU citizenship to all Brits who want to keep it, Clegg feels that “this government will do everything to stymie” such a proposal.

Nick Clegg was once the poster boy of a ‘new kind of politics’ and a fresh alternative to a burnt-out Labour Government and an unloved Conservative Party. However, his popularity receded after entering into coalition with the Conservatives and becoming defined by his U-turn on tuition fees. Clegg’s record in Government continues to divide opinion, but the 2015 General Election results, where the Lib Dems lost over 80% of their seats in the House of Commons, suggest that he is afforded more goodwill by the British press than by the British public.

“Young people voted in huge numbers to stay in the European Union, not to leave.”

Given his comments about Brexit being a betrayal of young people – an allegation familiar to Clegg – the erosion of popular trust in politicians is a genuine concern. Clegg argues that it goes both ways, and criticises the “simplistic view that all politicians should be infallible at all times, and have answers to everything.” While legitimate, it seems unsurprising that Clegg has chosen an above-the-fray political perspective that retrospectively absolves him from his harshest criticism.

“I would prefer the imperfect politics of reason to this kind of utopian politics which has gripped not only the United States but a lot of the debate in the United Kingdom as well.”

Clegg opposes those who “just yell at facts they don’t like” and says he wants an open and mature debate where people are treated like grown-ups. Returning to the issue of Emmanuel Macron, Clegg says he can guarantee that Macron “will not be able to fulfil the expectations people have of him”. Naturally, any mention of raised expectations leads to talk of the current President of the United States.

“Trump is not going to meet a fraction of the hopes that have been raised, in the same way that Brexit is not going to deliver a utopia for many low- and middle-incomes who voted for it.”

Clegg adds that his primary concern is what happens next.

“The danger of course is that when people become disappointed, where does the rage go? The worry is that it goes to the next, more extreme populist.”

In today’s “mood swing politics” where people demand that “every dot and comma of their aspirations will be fulfilled”, Clegg argues that populist politics needs to demonstrably fail somewhere for people to be dissuaded from it, although he worries about the potential aftermath. At times he appears content to conflate some of his harshest critics with practitioners of the politics of unreason, but his underlying point about the dangers of overly emotive politics is fair. On Brexit, Clegg says,

“The problem is that people have been promised a sort of sunny upland of a return to a simpler, quieter, easier life”.

If Brexit goes badly it could get “very ugly indeed” in Britain according to Clegg, who worries about the poison that could seep out of the Daily Mail, predicting it would blame anyone and everyone who comes to mind, be it “Labour, the Lib Dems, foreigners or the weather.” Clegg believes that the views of the over 16 million people who voted to Remain in the European Union, have since been summarily “brushed under the carpet.”

There is a remarkable lack of figureheads for Clegg’s politics of reason. The Conservatives are busy gorging themselves on the will of the people; Blair is still too toxic; Clegg and the Liberal Democrat’s status is reduced; the Scottish National Party are focussing on Indyref2 and the Labour Party on nothing at all.

The UK is facing the gravest threat to its prosperity, harmony and security in a generation but Whitehall is disrupted by fantasists busily Morris dancing into uncertainty.


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