In his Paris speech on European policy on Friday 8 July, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is advancing an economically liberal argument of which the Coalition Government can be proud. That Clegg can make such a speech is a triumph for the Liberal Democrats. That David Cameron would surely never want to make such a speech is a tragedy for the Tories.
Conservatives have abandoned a huge chunk of the economic liberal territory to which they once laid claim, because such territory lies in a political space called 'Europe'. Here is Nick Clegg calling for a fully functioning digital single market, the provision of venture capital right across the EU and the implementation of the Services Directive.
These things are all government policy, but would Cameron choose to trumpet them in a Continental capital, as Clegg does in this speech? Could Cameron comfortably echo Clegg in saying that he is proud that a British (Tory) European Commissioner, Lord Cockfield, was "the chief architect" of the single market? When Nick Clegg says that the creation of a true single market could add €800 billion to EU GDP, he is talking about future British prosperity - the very prosperity that used to motivate Tories to support the EU, and which ought to motivate them to support it now.
Under Thatcher, the Tories adopted the language of economic liberalism, although Thatcher herself, for all her rhetoric, was really a monopoly capitalist (and a believer in centralised government). Now it is not a Tory but the Liberal Democrat Leader, in government, who talks of the benefits of lower trade barriers, and of the need to open up new markets for our businesses.
For too many years, the UK's stale debate on Europe has revolved around EU institutional reform and the single currency. This speech talks instead about the things that EU countries can simply do together, both to tackle short-term crises and to create long-term prosperity. It acknowledges that common aims can be achieved by different means in different EU countries. Without ducking the problems faced by the euro (which the UK is clearly not about to join), the speech looks at the wider opportunities beyond the eurozone's current crisis.
The UK is stronger inside the world's largest trading bloc than it would be outside it, and this government is pursuing a liberalising agenda within the EU. The only response, as Mrs Thatcher put it in a rather different context, is to rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!
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