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Nick “Heineken” Clegg’s love of Europe is good diplomacy but suicidal politics

Clegg's fervent Europeanism sticks out amid the Euroscepticism of his Conservative colleagues, and i

There is no emotional balance in the argument about Britain's membership of the European Union. Those against see no merit in the project at all and denounce it with righteous passion. Those in favour quietly admit its flaws but like the alternatives less. The majority is unmoved, so the debate is skewed. Noisy hatred sets the tone.

It doesn't help that the best argument for the EU is that it keeps Europe boring. It has smothered ideology in managerial compromise. It aggregates the power of national governments to meet the challenge of globalised economics. (Yawn.) It balances the commercial advantages of free trade on a continental scale with the moral imperative of protecting workers' rights. (Yawn.) It doesn't always get the balance right but it has enabled member states to chart a middle course between unregulated markets and protectionism. (Zzz.)

Making that work involves compromises in national sovereignty, but none to compare with the impotence of national politics before the forces of global finance. The banking crisis showed what real surrender looks like. The UK economy was overrun by a computerised army of credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations.

Conspiracy theory

The EU is inefficient. Its democratic deficiencies are severe. It needs reform. It has also guaranteed peace and prosperity for peoples who have spent most of recorded history slaughtering each other. But it has never been sold on those terms in Britain. At best, it is presented as an unwelcome necessity imposed by the country's decline as a world power. More commonly, it is seen as a spiteful foreign conspiracy. No wonder it lacks legitimacy.

Very few high-profile politicians in Westminster will defend the EU with sincere admiration for its founding ideals. David Miliband is one but he is now a mere backbench Labour MP. The shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, is another but he has been elbowed aside by Ed Balls in the competition to lead Labour's response to the euro crisis.

The shadow chancellor's priority is to make life difficult for the coalition government, even if that means making opportunistic alliances with Tory anti-EU rebels. Pro-EU Tories exist, but as remnants of an old political civilisation, fragments of Westminster archaeology.

Then there is Nick Clegg. The Lib Dem leader is not just pro-Europe, he is quintessentially European. He did his basic training in Brussels as an aide in the European Commission, then as an MEP. He is half Dutch and his wife is Spanish. His ability to charm fellow Europeans in their own languages has earned him the nickname "Heineken" in the Foreign Office, after the old advertising slogan - Clegg reaches the diplomatic parts other ministers cannot reach.

He was deployed in that capacity in Brussels, on 9 November, to meet senior officials and address the European Parliament. His speech, nudging the EU towards a more liberal economic agenda, included the observation: "European co-operation is one of the greatest political and economic achievements of modern times." If that is the official government view, it is a well-kept secret on this side of the Channel.

Clegg's Europeanism is diplomatically admirable and politically suicidal. Lib Dem strategists hope that it makes the party look responsible compared to fanatical Tories. Maybe. I suspect that Britain has gone so far down the path of Europhobia that Clegg's Europhilia just looks like complicity in an establishment stitch-up. The Lib Dem strategy relies on voters one day showing the party appreciation for having taken difficult, unpopular decisions in tough times. The electorate, made nervous by Labour and Tory zealots on the left and right, is supposed to rehire the Lib Dems as the go-to guys for moderate, centrist coalition. As one Clegg aide puts it, the hope is that "populism is not that popular". That, he admits, is "quite a big bet".

It is also a reinvention of a party that used to campaign to the left of Labour on wish-list manifestos that were plainly incompatible with power. Clegg has transformed the Liberal Democrats from a quirky, British opposition outfit into a party of Continental, European-style technocrats marooned on an island in the eastern Atlantic.

The Lib Dems' poll ratings show no sign of recovery and, in senior Conservative circles, a settled opinion is forming that Clegg poses little danger at the next general election. Many Tories are focusing instead on the threat posed by Ukip in the European Parliament elections in 2014. Cameron's handling of the euro crisis, insufficiently bellicose for grass-roots activists, has provoked a rash of defections to Nigel Farage's anti-EU shires junta. In the 2009 European election, Ukip came second. It could top the poll next time. That doesn't translate into a big general election challenge, because the party's voters dwell mostly in safe Tory seats, but it is another force pulling politics away from EU engagement.

Man out of time

The Lib Dems, proud of their own conversion from protest vehicle to mature party of government, thoroughly despise Ukip and find the thought of equivalence sickening. One normally even-tempered minister recently described Farage's wrecking delegation in the European Parliament to me as "unpatriotic, Neanderthal wankers". The feeling is mutual.

Farage has had enough television and radio exposure to test whether he can win mass affection as a national figure. He can't. That doesn't mean Farageism lacks resonance. The creed is about more than the EU. It expresses a deep neurosis about borders and identity and the corruption of nationhood by a faceless other. The cultural potency of that force is on show in the hysterical response to the scandal around Theresa May's bungled experiment with relaxed passport controls.

Cleggism, by contrast, channels the cosmopolitan, polyglot, liberal borderlessness that the European elite see as the marker of civilisation. The Liberal Democrat leader once wanted to represent a new kind of politics but he looks more like an ambassador from some ancien régime, a lonely tribune from the 20th-century European Union: patrician, collegiate, moderate, boring, benign, seeking consensus, with more than a whiff of elitism - and wholly at odds with the spirit of the times.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?