“We mustn’t establish the precedent that the European Union commission president is hand-picked by the Parliament.” No, not David Cameron. But Nick Clegg, speaking earlier this month, as he hit the airwaves to oppose Jean-Claude Juncker’s ascension to the European Presidency. Along with the news that he might support an In/Out Referendum, it was another sign that the Lib Dem leader is scuttling closer to Cameron on Europe.
As I understand it, it’s all part of the Lib Dems’ response to their hammering in the European elections. They still want to be the Party of In™, but they don’t want to be the Party of So-Far-In-That-We’re-Stuck-With-How-Things-Are. After all, as another poll demonstrates today, the British public aren’t exactly ecstatic with how things are. The Lib Dems now plan to do more to emphasise the necessity of reform in Europe. They say that this was always what they believed – as per one of Clegg’s essays in the Orange Book – but that it had been obscured by the fog of Westminster.
Reforming Europe? Junking Juncker? Offering a Referendum? You might think that this helps ease the prospect of another Tory-Lib Dem union, in the event of another hung parliament. And, in a way, that’s true: agreement between the two parties is agreement, plain and simple. That’s always useful in negotiations.
But it’s also not as straightforward as that. We can already anticipate how Europe might undermine a Cameron premiership after the next election, as he advocates In against significant parts of his party that want Out. But imagine just how much more violent that conflagration would be if Clegg were involved. Both Cameron and Clegg standing on the same platform, supporting the cause of an In/Out Referendum, and campaigning for In? The Tory leader could probably do without the association. His backbenchers wouldn’t be particularly cool with it.
Besides, plenty of differences do and would still remain between the two party leaders – particularly over renegotiation. As John Rentoul points out in today’s Independent on Sunday, “if Cameron is still in coalition with the ‘party of in’ after the election, it would be hard to agree a joint negotiating posture with Nick Clegg.” We know this because of what’s happened during the current Parliament. The disgruntled letter by 54 businessmen (£) in today’s Sunday Times, expressing their “concern” at the rolls of red tape coming from Brussels, is partially a function of this Government’s inability to make a unified approach to the European Union.
All of which leaves Cameron in a socially awkward position: the closer Clegg gets to him, when it comes to Europe, the more he might want to back away.