UK Politics

Nick Clegg warns against 'needless rivalry' in Europe

Nick Clegg with the leaders of other Liberal parties in Europe
Image caption Nick Clegg urged unity and growth at a meeting of European Liberal leaders

Nick Clegg has warned against "needless rivalry and isolation" among EU member states as they seek to deal with the economic problems facing them.

The deputy prime minister told a meeting of Liberal party leaders from across Europe that they must promote "unity over disunity" within the EU.

David Cameron vetoed an EU-wide treaty change last month to facilitate closer union, a move which dismayed Mr Clegg.

Mr Cameron has said it is a "pressure point" between the coalition partners.

However, he told Sky News that he and his deputy were determined to work together despite their parties' differences over Europe.

'Fragile' economy

The Liberal Democrat leader and other Lib Dem ministers in the coalition government are meeting some of their Liberal allies in Europe, including Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, Andrus Ansip, prime minister of Estonia and Jan Bjorklund, deputy prime minister of Sweden.

Mr Clegg told the gathering in London that Europe's economic situation was still "fragile" amid concerns over the future of the eurozone and the risk of many of continent's leading economies slipping back into recession.

"The decisions we take in our different countries and our different administrations over the next few weeks and months will have far-reaching consequences for the livelihoods, the prosperity and the economic security of millions of families and communities across the European Union," he said. "So the stakes could not be higher".

The difficulties facing Europe meant it was more important than ever that EU countries remained united, he added.

"We will not sort out this crisis by falling apart. We can only address these problems by pulling together...It is immensely important that we work, as Liberals, to promote unity over disunity and to promote co-operation rather needless rivalry or isolation."

Growth needed

While the UK had put in place a tough plan to cut the deficit, Mr Clegg said it was clear Europe's problems could not be solved by "fiscal austerity alone".

"Fiscal discipline is an absolutely necessary condition in order to move forward but not a sufficient condition for the European economy to move forward. If we only repair the damaged balance sheets of European economies without promoting growth we will only have provided half the answer."

He added: "Growth will get us through this crisis while fiscal austerity alone cannot."

The UK demanded safeguards on financial regulation and the single market in return for backing any change to EU treaties which paved the way for fiscal union across the eurozone.

In a statement issued after Monday's meeting, Mr Clegg and the other Liberal leaders said the proposed fiscal pact could boost "discipline and solidarity" among the 17 countries using the euro but must not come "at the cost of division" in the wider 27-member EU.

Boosting economic competitiveness and further reforms to the single market in areas such as services and energy were "best pursued" by all EU members and not just eurozone countries, they stressed.

'Sticking plaster'

Speaking on Monday, Mr Cameron said he expected the eurozone to survive its current debt crisis intact but eurozone leaders needed to take "some decisive steps" to ensure it does.

"There are the short-term sticking-plaster steps of a proper firewall to prevent contagion around Europe, a much more decisive settlement for Greece... strengthening the European banks," he told Sky News.

"But that is only the short term. The longer term is that you have got to address the fact that there is a lack of competitiveness between Germany on the one hand and many of the southern European countries on the other."

On domestic tensions over Europe, Mr Cameron denied there was ever any prospect of the coalition breaking up over December's veto but he said that the issue remained a "pressure point" between the Conservatives and Lib Dems.

For Labour, shadow Europe minister Emma Reynolds said Mr Clegg had been left to "clean up the mess" caused by the UK's veto.

"The deputy prime minister acknowledges that this is not the time for 'needless rivalry' but that is precisely the path his government has chosen," she said. "Nick Clegg's efforts are evidence of yet more coalition wrangling rather than a sign of any real progress being made in resolving the crisis in the interests of the country."

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