THE rift in the coalition government over Europe deepened yesterday as Liberal Democrat Treasury secretary Danny Alexander joined forces with Tory Cabinet minister Ken Clarke to lead the “fightback on Europe”.
The two europhiles joined former Labour business secretary and European Commissioner Lord Mandelson at a campaign launch by the Centre for British Influence in Europe think-tank, to attack the eurosceptics in the government.
The event came just a week after Prime Minister David Cameron bowed to pressure from eurosceptics in his party and offered an in/out referendum by 2017 based on a renegotiated settlement with the EU.
There are concerns that Mr Cameron, who says he wants Britain to stay in the EU, has already given the green light to Tory colleagues, such as Education Secretary Michael Gove, to campaign to leave the EU.
Mr Alexander, who before entering parliament worked for campaign group Britain In Europe, argued that the UK has a more powerful negotiating role “inside Europe than from the sidelines”.
He said: “The EU is not perfect by any stretch and I’m a big advocate of EU reform. But the idea that we should extract ourselves from the bulk of EU obligations is nonsensical.”
He added: “We can offer a more compelling alternative: a strong UK, influential in Europe and so more influential in the world. Stronger with America and China, because we are at the heart of the EU.” Addressing an audience of 200 people from the worlds of politics, the media, business, diplomacy, trade unions and think-tanks, Mr Clarke said it was “obvious and essential” that the EU needs to reform in order for the UK to “compete properly in a fiercely global marketplace”.
He added: “The real challenge for us as we debate our role in the EU is working out what we should be pushing forward, what we should be leading on within the EU, to make it – and us – a more effective economic and global power.
“We need to concentrate on what we are in favour of and not just what we are against. There is a huge potential prize out there for the UK, if only we focus our attention and influence in any future negotiations on the positive things that really matter.”
Lord Mandelson told the audience “there is a lot of water to flow under the bridge – including the holding of a general election” before the EU referendum campaign begins.
He said: “For far too long, those who want to destroy Britain’s interests and influence in Europe have been allowed to get away with murder with the lies and false propaganda they have poured out about the European Union and what it represents for our country. This cannot go unchallenged any more.”