Nick Clegg

Thursday’s catastrophic defeat for Britain’s Liberal Democrats in local elections has led to speculation that Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, may get the heave-ho and replace Catherine Ashton, the UK’s member of the European Commission and EU foreign policy chief.

The speculation appears based on not much more than it making some logical sense: Clegg is a Brussels veteran, having served as an MEP and aide to Leon Brittan when Brittan was a European commissioner in the 1990s. And Ashton continues to bear the brunt of intense criticism for her performance as foreign policy chief, recently suffering an unexpected broadside from Belgium’s foreign minister. Read more

Three days of summitry between EU and Asian leaders wraps up Wednesday in Brussels with the only “deliverable” – diplo-speak for a concrete achievement – of the entire event: the signing of a free trade agreement between the EU and South Korea.

But frequently, these international talkfests are more interesting for the atmospherics than any deals that are struck, and this week the mood has been more telling than most. Read more

As you’d expect, European Union leaders were quick to congratulate David Cameron on his appointment as British prime minister.  But for all the warm words, they will be watching his first moves on the European stage like hawks.

An important test will come next week at a meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels.  There the UK will find itself under pressure from a majority of countries to agree to new arrangements tightening the regulation of hedge funds and private equity.  Spain, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is desperate to get the deal done next week, having helped out Gordon Brown’s Labour government by delaying it until the British election was out of the way.  But will the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition be inclined to sign up to such an important measure so soon into its period of office? Read more

Viewed from Brussels, the rise of Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats in Britain’s election campaign is a fantasy come true.  For most of its 37 years in the European Union, Britain has been the bloc’s most awkward, cussed member-state.  Now, the unthinkable is happening.  Britain’s opinion polls are topped by a party whose leader spent five years working at the European Commission and another five years as a MEP in the European Parliament.  Gott im Himmel!  A Brit who actually understands the place!

And it doesn’t stop there.  Clegg studied at the elite College of Europe in Bruges, an institution geared to producing crop after crop of graduates with a lifelong enthusiasm for EU integration.  He speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish, making him as proficient a linguist as such dedicated Europeans as Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s full-time president, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg premier.

Clegg has a Dutch mother, a half-Russian father and three children called Antonio, Alberto and Miguel.  There has been no British party leader like him since the EU’s 1957 Treaty of Rome.  In fact, you may have to go all the way back to Charles James Fox, the Whig who briefly served as foreign secretary in the Napoleonic wars, to find a British statesman whose mental outlook was so naturally rooted in Europe.  Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!  Clegg’s emergence is enough to make even the most agnostic Eurocrat think that there must be a god, after all. Read more