* Coalition cracks open over Europe policy
* Clegg said government collapse would be "economic
* Poll shows 66 percent of public back Cameron
By Stefano Ambrogi and Keith Weir
LONDON, Dec 11 Divisions over Europe
within Britain's coalition government were exposed on Sunday
when David Cameron's deputy said an EU summit that ended with
the prime minister deploying his veto was a "bitter
disappointment" and "bad for Britain".
However, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who heads the
smaller, pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, denied that the coalition
which took office under the Conservative Cameron in May 2010
might now collapse.
"It would be even more damaging for us as a country if the
coalition government were now to fall apart. That would create
economic disaster for the country at a time of great economic
uncertainty," Clegg told a television interviewer.
Conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague echoed that
view, saying it was vital for the coalition to continue as
Britain teeters on the edge of another recession.
"Although some of these different views about Europe have
come to the fore in recent days the Lib Dems are clear, as we
are, that the coalition continues and that's in the vital
interest of this country," Hague told Sky News television.
But the divisions run deep.
Clegg turned his fire on eurosceptic members of the
Conservative Party who are pressing Cameron to follow up his
veto on European Union treaty change with a referendum on ending
Britain's membership of the 27-nation bloc.
"A Britain which leaves the EU will be considered to be
irrelevant by Washington and would be considered a pygmy in the
world when I want us to stand tall and lead in the world," Clegg
told the BBC.
At a Brussels summit on Friday, Britain vetoed a plan for a
new EU treaty that would impose closer EU control over national
government budgets in order to curb the bloc's debt crisis.
Cameron said the proposed deal risked exposing London's powerful
financial services industry to unwelcome EU regulation.
The other member states, including the 17 using the euro,
now plan to adopt a separate pact without Britain, leaving the
island nation alone as never before in the EU, a club it joined
in 1973 but which Britons have long viewed with distrust.
"BAD FOR BRITAIN"
"I'm bitterly disappointed by the outcome of last week's
summit, precisely because I think now there is a danger that the
UK will be isolated and marginalised within the European Union,"
said Clegg, a former member of the European parliament.
"I don't think that's good for jobs, in the City or
elsewhere, I don't think it's good for growth or for families up
and down the country," he added.
Speaking of being informed of Cameron's veto in the early
hours of Friday, Clegg said: "My immediate reaction was I said
this was bad for Britain.
"I made it clear to ... the prime minister, of course, that
it was untenable for me to welcome it. And now subsequently I
said that I regret ... the outcome."
Other senior Liberal Democrats attacked Cameron and some
took a swipe at the gloating eurosceptics on the right of his
Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown told Sky News
the veto had been a "catastrophically bad move", accusing
Cameron of "acting as the leader of the Conservative Party, not
the Prime Minister of Britain."
On Saturday, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes
said the coalition was "not a eurosceptic government" and that
Cameron's restive right-wing should "calm down".
Clegg's tough talk, following initial loyal declarations of
support for Cameron on Friday, may reassure supporters of his
centre-left party, which formed an uneasy alliance with the
Conservatives after an inconclusive election last year.
Support for the Lib Dems has halved to little more than 10
percent since the election, with many supporters unhappy with
compromises they have made in government. Quitting the coalition
now would leave the Lib Dems facing electoral disaster.
However, Clegg said he now wanted Britain to re-engage with
Europe, putting him on a collision course with right-wing
legislators in the Conservative camp. He said those cheering the
outcome of the summit were "spectacularly misguided."
Nevertheless, a poll in the Mail on Sunday newspaper found a
majority of voters backed Cameron over Europe. The research by
Survation said 62 percent of the public were behind him, while
only 19 percent said the prime minister was wrong to use the
veto. The poll also found that 66 percent of those surveyed
wanted a referendum over ties with the EU.
Cameron and Clegg are far apart on Europe. The prime
minister styles himself a eurosceptic whereas the multilingual
Clegg worked for the European Commission and cites his own
family background - including a Dutch mother and Spanish wife -
to explain his "internationalist outlook". His party has in part
defined itself by its support for European integration.
"The Lib Dems are united on this from top to bottom. It
could be a real problem for the coalition in the medium to long
term," said Tim Bale, a politics professor at the University of