What’s going on with the Lib Dems and Europe?

by Dr Alison Smith

In the small hours of the morning, David Cameron’s negotiating team crashed out of talks aimed at finding a co-ordinated EU-27 response to the euro-zone’s problems.  The discussions ended in rancour, with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, accusing the British of behaving like a “man who wants to go to a wife-swapping party without taking his own wife.”

That Cameron’s Conservatives’ have taken an isolationist stance in Europe is not surprising: the party’s ever-present euro-sceptic wing has gained strength in recent months, feasting on the euro-zone’s misfortunes.  But more of a fight might have been expected from the British government’s junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Led by a former MEP, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems have long been the most-consistently pro-European party in Westminster.

Yet the Liberal Democrats’ response today has been muted.  Nick Clegg stated that Cameron’s demands at the summit were ‘modest and reasonable’, and that the coalition was ‘united on the issue‘.  Senior colleagues publicly supported this view, with former leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, telling the Today programme that the development was ‘inevitable’.

So what is driving the Lib Dems to abandon their traditional pro-European stance?  It is clear that senior Lib Dems now share the moderate Conservatives’ view that, while the fire in the euro-zone rages, the safest place to stand is next to the emergency exit.  Although this disloyalty (in the eyes of other Europeans)  will leave Britain isolated if the euro-zone successfully douses the fire, there is a growing consensus amongst Britain’s leaders that the euro is doomed.

There is good basis for their fears.  The euro-zone still faces daunting debt-mountains and the dilemma of how to make the peripheral countries competitive.  Can the Greek government really deliver on its undertaking to keep its structural deficit below 0.5% of GDP?  When leaders return to their own countries and face electorates exhausted by austerity and frustrated with low economic growth, will these latest plans prove unworkable?  And the European Central Bank still resists taking the role as lender of last resort, which many think is the only guaranteed way to fix the euro.  In short, the Lib Dems are no longer willing to risk any of their considerably diminished political capital defending the EU or the euro-zone.

However, even if the result of last night’s meeting was inevitable, the negotiations were carried out with a shocking lack of tact and diplomacy.  The Tory euro-sceptics’ appetite is unsatiated, since now they want a referendum on whether the UK should be a member of the EU at all.  They would do well to tone down their gloating, for the Liberal Democrats’ acceptance of Friday night’s developments is an indication of just how serious the euro-zone crisis has become.