Clegg’s Eurovision

The EU isn’t perfect, said Nick Clegg at a Demos fringe event last night, and pro-Europeans shouldn’t pretend that it is. In fact, he argued, many of the frustrating things about it are difficult to avoid.

The former Deputy PM gave the example of an EU chocolate directive that had taken nearly two years to get through. It was incredibly slow, he said, but the reason for the delay was different nation states asserting their own interests in negotiations. Initiatives could be fast-tracked instead of this – but greater speed and efficiency would come at the expense of compromise and negotiation.

Clegg’s key point came when he was asked why the EU needed a chocolate directive at all. His answer was that the EU provides a common market, not a free market. It functions not simply by reducing taxes and tariffs on imports/exports but by harmonising regulation and trading standards across Europe. This process of harmonisation makes it far easier to trade across national boundaries – but it does not exist naturally. It needs to be created though law.

This is an awkward point for both Right and Left. Clegg argued that the Right is mistaken if it believes that Britain can leave the EU and its bureaucracy behind, but still benefit from its trading arrangements. If trade is facilitated through harmonising measures like the chocolate directive, then ultimately you have to observe it to benefit from the EU’s trading arrangements.  The only real choice is whether you have a say in what the directive looks like. Clegg argued that leaving the EU would lead the UK towards Norway’s ‘fax democracy’, where the Norwegians have to observe rules but have had no say in them.

This is difficult territory for the Left too though. Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent ambivalence to the EU stems from a traditional Left-wing critique of it as a capitalists’ club. In this analysis, the EU exists to make life easy for companies. It does this by harmonising rules across national borders – which prevent elected governments from regulating markets in the public interest. Trade trumps democracy.

What the objections from both Left and Right have in common is a yearning for sovereignty – what Michael Ignatieff called being ‘master in your own house’ in this Demos lecture. Clegg’s response to this is that the EU can, in fact, extend the power of citizens to make democratic decisions in an age where nation states no longer have enough purchase on issues like climate change, terrorism or financial regulation. In this argument, pooling sovereignty with other nations actually increases the power of British citizens to affect these issues.

But come back to the chocolate directive, or more controversial EU issues like migration, and the point on sovereignty is hard to avoid. For Liberals, sovereignty does matter. But in the end, perhaps the ability of companies to trade internationally – and the freedom of people to move across borders – simply matters more.

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UPDATE: Dods have very kindly provided a full summary transcript of the event.