Denis MacShane: The 'Big Cheese Englishman' who believes the Eurosceptics' arguments are full of holes

The Monday Interview: Minister for europe
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Denis MacShane, the multilingual Minister for Europe, has just received a text message from Spain. It is from Rafael Estella, a prominent Spanish MP, and congratulates Mr MacShane on a muy buena entrevista - a very good interview - in a Spanish newspaper.

The Minister is very keen on building bridges between Spain and Britain, and more specifically between Tony Blair and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the new Spanish Prime Minister, or "Zap", as Mr MacShane calls him.

Within hours of taking office last month, Mr Zapatero announced plans to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, a serious blow to Mr Blair. Yet Mr MacShane is adamant that "Zap", like all Spanish people, loves the British Prime Minister. "Everywhere I go in Europe there is admiration for Blair," he says. "They adore him in Spain. Zap quoted him endlessly all through the election campaign."

But can relations between Spain and Britain really be that rosy? Didn't Mr Zapatero accuse Tony Blair and George Bush of dishonesty over Iraq? And didn't one of Mr Zapatero's lieutenants - Jose Bono - call Mr Blair "a complete dickhead" on live television, only to be promoted to the post of Defence Minister? "Oh yeah. He called him un gilipollas integral which means literally a complete finger man, a complete wanker," the minister says.

Despite his view that "languages are something head waiters do", Mr MacShane's linguistic ability is impressive. He speaks French, Spanish and German fluently and has a working knowledge of a smattering of other languages.

His fluency and in-depth knowledge of EU politics has gone down well with European ministers who see Mr MacShane, a former journalist and trade union leader, as an intellectual in the Continental mould or le grand fromage Anglais - the Big Cheese Englishman.

Mr MacShane's vast Whitehall office is awash with European memorabilia, including a French children's train made of coaches which read E-n-t-e-n-t-e C-o-r-d-i-a-l-e, EU beer mats and a full sized European Union flag. The minister's ardent commitment to the European project takes him to several EU cities a week. But he despairs of Eurosceptic attitudes in Britain and the anti-European press barons who he says print constant lies about Brussels policies. He says opinion is so hostile, it often feels like "advocating Christianity in a Rome full of Neros and Caligulas".

"People have been told continually by too many politicians in the past decade that Europe is a bad thing," he says. "If you sow the seeds of anti-European poison why should you be surprised when something very nasty sprouts out of it?" He singles out Michael Howard, the Tory leader, for criticism. He says Mr Howard has spent the past 12 years making "anti-Europeanism" the main political ideology in British politics.

But the Tories' decision to drip-feed anti-Brussels feeling has created a far more extreme political force which advocates immediate withdrawal from the EU. Mr MacShane believes that in next month's European elections the UK Independence Party, which wants the UK to withdraw from the EU, will gain more seats. "I think UKIP will do well in the election," he says. "UKIP are the militant expression of Tory hostility to Europe."

It is not only the Tories and right-wing press that are to blame for the pervasive scepticism about Brussels, he says: the Government machine must also bear some responsibility. "There is a default setting in Whitehall which is to blame Brussels and forget about crazy Europe," he said.

However, Mr Blair's decision to call a referendum on the EU constitution means that forgetting about "crazy Europe" is no longer an option. "Every Government minister will have to start making the case for Europe," says Mr MacShane. He predicts the Government will get a very clear yes vote but warns that the consequences of losing would be very serious.

"The referendum has to be fought in a cool way, a relaxed way, a witty way," he says. "The Government will have to spend serious money. I don't think we need three party leaders and a couple of big business bosses and trade union general secretaries announcing to people how they should vote."

Yet barely two months ago, the minister, along with Mr Blair, was arguing vehemently against holding a referendum. On 29 March he declared in the House of Commons that those calling for an EU poll were "the gravediggers of parliamentary democracy". Was he completely out of the loop over the Prime Minister's sudden change of heart? Mr MacShane avoids the question but hints that he was not. He maintains he was involved in discussions with the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, about the referendum policy six months before the Prime Minister's decision to hold one. "We sat in this room and Jack's room playing some cards with all the other colleagues discussing this non-stop since last autumn," he said.

At this point there is the sound of polished shoes on marble flagstones and a knock at the door of the minister's grand office. It is the British ambassador to Turkey. "Another day, another ambassador," says the minister, who, with his shirt hanging out of his trousers, leaps up from the sofa to greet our man in Ankara. "Peter is one of the most brilliant dips. He is the ambassador in Turkey but he's much cleverer than that," he gushes. "He is a bit more than that. He is one of the giants of the Foreign Office." The ambassador looks pleased and plonks himself down in an armchair where he remains for the rest of the interview.

Denis MacShane has not always welcomed ambassadors to his office for chats. The former BBC journalist, whose father, a Polish army officer, came to Britain after the war, was arrested in 1982 for smuggling cash to underground trade unions in Warsaw. In a John le Carré-style operation, the future minister ate the address of his destination before his capture. "I was taking money to the underground trade union from the European trade union movement to help pay for its printing operation," he said. "I had lots of $100 bills. I had got rid of the money before I was arrested. I had the address I had to take them to which I had to tear up and swallow. It was only 10 grand. You had to shove it in your pockets."

His father, Jan Matyjaszek, fled to Scotland after the war where he married Isobel MacShane, and it was his mother's name that the minister later adopted. Mr MacShane is delighted about Poland's recent admission to the EU, and he extols the benefits of membership. But on the tricky question of who the new European Commission president should be, he is less forthcoming. He is shy about endorsing Chris Patten, the former Tory MP who is a respected EU commissioner, and says the choice will be up to Mr Blair and other senior political leaders.

"I am a personal friend of Chris: I am an enormous admirer of him. I am not sure that having a Commission president helps move one way or another European debate inside the country from which he or she comes," he says.

Mr MacShane is naturally generous about his political colleagues from across the divide. He says he appreciates the collegiate spirit of the House of Commons, which rallied to support him after the recent death of his daughter Clare, daughter of Carol Barnes, the newsreader, in a skydiving accident.

"I got stacks of letters, some e-mails from lots of people. It was very very important to both Carol and myself. From Michael Howard and Charlie Kennedy and obviously Tony and Jack and all the Labour friends," he says. "The House of Commons is a very important family to belong to when something happens to you. There are a number of people here at all levels who have lost children and it is not a club you ever want to join. The hugs and messages are still coming in."

The minister keeps a copy of his daughter's diary in his office. She was 24 when she died in Australia after her parachute failed to open on her 200th skydive. "She wrote," he says, proudly, but in a voice tinged with sadness. "It must have been in the genes: scribble, scribble, scribble."


Name: Denis MacShane

Age: 56

Family: Married, four children. Daughter, deceased, from earlier relationship

Education: Merton College, Oxford; Birkbeck, University of London

1969: BBC producer

1978: President, National Union of Journalists

1980: Policy director, International Metalworkers Federation in Geneva

1992: Director, European Policy Institute

1994: MP for Rotherham

1997: PPS, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

2001: Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office