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Nick Clegg: 'With generostiy and imagination it is still possible to avoid the worst of Brexit'

On Tuesday 24 April 2018, Nick Clegg, who served as Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, gave a guestlecture to first year students public administration about the profound dilemmas on Brexit. The lecture was part of a political science course within the Bachelor Public Administration of Leiden University and co- organised by the Institute of Public Administration of the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs and the Montesquieu Institute.

Big Questions

How can we explain the results of the Brexit referendum and what will be the impact of the Brexit? Will the UK stay in the Single Market? Will there be continued cooperation with the EU to counter the big challenges of the 21st century, from terrorism to climate change? Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg  was invited by The Europe Lecture Foundation to shed light on these big questions in The Hague on 24 April 2018.

Status Quo

In order to explain the results of the Brexit referendum, Clegg relies on his own experiences during the campaign. ‘You cannot ask someone to cast a vote for remain as if everything should remain the same.’ Clegg acknowledges that the financial crisis of 2008 caused pain and anger among hard-working citizens. ‘I lost the emotional argument. The heart is much more powerful than the brain. People were going to use this opportunity to reject the status quo that was treating them unfair. It was an eruption of discontent.’

To put the current developments in perspective, Clegg compares the conditions under which the different member states joined the European Union. Whereas for other states EU membership was arriving at the top table of modern democracy after a long period of authoritarian of fascist rule, this did not apply to the United Kingdom. ‘Rather than emotionally uplifting, British membership was a pessimistic recognition: it was no longer able to stand apart.’ In addition to that, ‘the whole debate was not about national identity, it was a cost-benefit analysis of the prices of milk and butter.

Photo's made by: Kevin Bergenhenegouwen


Clegg feels that the same has happened in the debates prior to the Brexit referendum in 2016. The media focused too much on statistical claims. However, according to Clegg, ‘the claim that the EU never gave the UK what it needed and the claim that it is the EU’s fault that Britain decided to leave the EU is utter nonsense.’ He stresses that other states were remarkably generous by granting the UK its privileged status and special treatments. ‘The UK, without realising it, was having cake and eating it!’

Clegg illustrates his concerns on the current geopolitical situation of the UK by using the metaphor of an ‘Atlantic bridge’. On the one hand, the UK had a special relation with the United States. On the other hand, the UK benefited from its membership of the European Union. ‘Now the UK is simultaneously losing both feet of the Atlantic bride. It is losing it in Europe because of the Brexit and it is losing it in America, because President Trump is not interested in the UK-US relations.’

Multiple Challenges

However, Clegg thinks that the European Union itself is also facing multiple challenges. First of all, Clegg urges the EU to settle the profound imbalance between north and south in the Eurozone. ‘In my judgement, this project is unsustainable. As long as austerity is the only solution and there is no way of pulling risk, it is inevitable that the EU will stumble from one crisis to another.’

Second, the EU needs to provide citizens with greater confidence with regard to migration issues. Clegg calls it ‘a profound mistake’ that politicians ignore that ‘election after election voters are saying over and over again that they are not happy with how politicians are controlling their borders’. According to Clegg, you cannot simultaneously remove internal and external borders. He therefore argues that a more sustainable approach to the movements of people is needed.

Third, the EU should prioritize to establish its relation with Britain. Clegg remains optimistic. With less than 12 months to go before the UK is due to leave the EU, Clegg personally still aims to stop Brexit. ‘With generosity and imagination it is still possible to avoid the worst of Brexit. We can travel together as one convoy rather than as a split family.’ He thinks the UK should reopen the issue whether to leave at all. ‘It is perfectly possible to remain, if and when members of parliament were to vote down the final deal of Prime Minister Theresa May.’ He concludes with a smile, ‘I think most grown-ups across the EU know that an EU with Britain in it is much stronger. We do not need to be in the core of the EU, but we do not need to flee into outer space either.’

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