Clegg on Europe: the details are complicated, the overall message is clear

So, Nick Clegg wants the UK to stay part of cross-European anti-crime arrangements and will do so by agreeing to opt out of them all. Plus he isn’t happy with plans to increase the EU’s budget and wants to block them by opposing cuts in the budget. Not exactly clear, you might think … but that is to see them at the wrong level of detail.

Zoom in to the details of how European decision–making works or zoom out to the broad overall picture and there is a consistent approach. The problem is that on a quick glance at the details it risks looking a mess – and that’s just the level at which many opinions about news get formed by journalists and commentators as they zip back and forth between rolling news headlines, tweets, quick blog posts and hurried chats before settling down to write the story.

Overcoming this shallow level of analysis is the challenge for Nick Clegg and his media team as his speech today plays out across the media and – like all political speeches – even at best flickers only briefly across the attention of voters.

There is a receptive audience for the top level message that, “We’re much keener on working with colleagues in Europe than the other two parties”. The instinctively pro-European people who will react positively to this line may be smaller in number and less vocal than those who instinctively recoil from such a message. But remember – for the Liberal Democrats a massive triumph at the next general election would be 25% of the vote. Even to beat the previous Alliance high watermark would imply a result where most people vote for other parties.

Perhaps with a new strategy advisor in place for Nick Clegg, this is sign of a new drive to appeal to a hard-core of liberal, pro-European voters, even if that means also saying things that put off some other people. That would be a worthwhile exchange to break out of the party’s current bind of having such a small core voter compared to the other two main parties.

(If you’re still wondering about the detail by the way, here’s how it pans out. Clegg is only agreeing to opt out of European arrangements if Cameron also at the same time agrees to which of them the UK will opt back in to. To get his cherished opt outs, Cameron will also have to commit to things that will stay. And on the budget, Clegg’s case is that calling for a large cut in the budget would be such an extreme negotiating position compared to what other countries are pitching for that it will be ineffective. Better to call for a real terms freeze as the more reasonable demand is more likely to be successful.)

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