British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has accused euroskeptics of stoking xenophobia and chauvinism by indulging in “the politics of grievance,” on the day that a diplomatic war of words between Britain and France intensified.
The Liberal Democrat leader called for calm and vowed to return Britain to the heart of Europe despite British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision last week to veto a treaty aimed at rescuing the euro.
Speaking to the Guardian at the end of one of the most politically fraught weeks for the UK’s ruling coalition government, he said it was “very significant” the British government had agreed to cooperate with Europe by allowing eurozone countries to use EU community institutions, such as the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, to enforce its new fiscal agreement.
“As the dust settles on last week’s summit, the government over the past few days has already taken some very big steps to re-engage, get back in the saddle and get back into the mainstream of the debate,” he said.
Nonetheless, cross-channel relations hit new lows on Friday as French Prime Minister Francois Fillon appeared to urge credit rating agencies to train their fire on the UK as opposed to French banks. Clegg said the remarks were unacceptable.
“I just think we all need to go away, have a bit of hiatus, a bit of time to have Christmas, to eat some mince pies or whatever the French equivalent is. Everyone is a bit tired,” Clegg said.
He said Britain might have been caught in the crossfire of a French presidential election.
“There is nothing more popular in French politics — it has always been the case and it will always be so — than giving ‘perfidious Albion’ a good kicking from time to time. At the end of the day, France and Britain have always worked out it is better to work together, rather than shout at each other across the Channel,” he said.
On Friday night, French officials insisted ministers had not been seeking to criticize British government economic policy or its creditworthiness, but acknowledged there is some residual French pique at the way in which British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne appeared to use a BBC interview gratuitously to bracket the French economy alongside that of Greece and Portugal.
Facing the threat of isolation since the summit, Clegg has been working to undo the damage, first by heading off any British attempt to block the eurozone countries from being able to use EU institutions to help enforce its deficit pact and second by ensuring observer status for UK officials at meetings of the euro group.
“Of course there are different visions and traditions of what European integration looks like. The great genius of European integration economically is that it has always held two different traditions in balance — the Anglo-Saxon liberal tradition and the French dirigiste tradition,” Clegg said.
However, he warned: “The danger at the moment is because society is under economic stress, xenophobia, chauvinism and polarization increase. You can see it in British politics. This is the perfect environment. The people who are trying to exploit the politics of grievance and blame believe they have got the wind in their sails. I represent a center-ground liberalism that is saying we have got to stick to being reasoned and open. The liberal open society is always under pressure when there is fear and anxiety in society.”