British Prime Minister David Cameron tried to limit the political damage from an historic break with his European partners, insisting on Monday that remaining a member of the 27-nation EU was in Britain’s national interest, despite his veto on a new treaty.
Cameron’s decision to oppose a EU treaty change aimed at tightening fiscal rules for countries using the euro has isolated Britain in the 27-nation bloc and created the biggest rift in his coalition since he took power in May last year.
The prime minister sparked speculation about Britain’s future relationship with the EU on Friday when he appeared to give a less than wholehearted commitment to Britain’s place in the bloc it joined in 1973 and with which the island nation has long had an ambivalent relationship.
“Britain remains a full member of the EU and the events of the last week do nothing to change that. Our membership of the EU is vital to our national interest,” Cameron told parliament during a noisy debate on last week’s summit. “We are a trading nation and we need the single market for trade, investment and jobs.”
Cameron’s veto pleased euroskeptics on the right of his Conservative Party, but angered pro-European Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in a coalition that he depends on to push through austerity policies to curb Britain’s big budget deficit.
Cameron said the tensions would not lead to the coalition breaking up even though his deputy, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, was glaringly absent from the debate, drawing cries of “Where’s Clegg?” from opposition lawmakers.
Clegg, who voiced disappointment on Sunday at Cameron’s summit decision despite initially appearing to support it, said his presence in parliament would have been a distraction because of his public disagreement with Cameron.
“I’ve made it very clear that I think isolation in Europe, when we are one against 26, is potentially a bad thing for jobs, a bad thing for growth and a bad thing for the livelihoods of millions of people in this country,” Clegg told broadcasters.
He said he would work to “build bridges, re-engage and make sure the British voice is heard at the top table in Europe,” but said the coalition was “here to stay” until the next election due in 2015.
The Liberal Democrats have seen their poll ratings more than halve to just more than 10 percent since the election, and Clegg knows that a snap poll would leave them facing another long spell in the political wilderness.
Cameron said Britain could be both a “full, committed and influential” member of the EU, but stay out of arrangements that did not protect British interests.
“We are in the EU and we want to be,” he said.
He said the choice he had faced was a treaty without proper safeguards for Britain’s important financial services industry or no treaty.
“The right answer was no treaty,” he said. “It was not an easy thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.”
Cameron’s spokesman said Britain needed to be clear that the new arrangements would not undermine the EU’s single market.