Neil Kinnock: 'This is not a job you do for enjoyment. Dancing round the maypole is infrequent'

The Monday Interview: Vice-President of the European Commission
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Although Neil Kinnock has worked in Brussels for eight years, and risen to the post of vice-president of the European Commission, he does not always seem enamoured of the place.

Take for example the suggestion that Tony Blair might want to become the permanent president of the European Council, the new post likely to be set up to prepare for the EU's expansion.

"It is not a possibility," says Mr Kinnock, chuckling, "He's more likely to sing opera, and in Covent Garden too," The reason? "Can you really see Tony Blair dedicating one working week, let alone 128 working weeks or two and a half years [the term of office] to convening and chairing council meetings and answering the odd phone call from Washington?"

How about Peter Mandelson, the former Northern Ireland secretary who has been tipped as a possible successor when Mr Kinnock stands down as a European Commissioner next year? "I don't think he'd be very happy here, to tell you the truth," says Mr Kinnock after a pause to reflect. "I don't want to make it sound even less glamorous than it is but only people with the willingness and ability to slog need apply."

The former Labour leader will probably not be shedding copious tears when he leaves his post, supervising administrative reform of the European Commission. "There have been times that have been fulfilling," he says, "but I don't think you do this job for the purpose of enjoyment. Design and management of change is a process, so there is satisfaction, but dancing around the maypole is an infrequent activity."

If Europe as a place of work earns only qualified endorsement, Europe as a political cause still burns with some passion. As Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, prepares to give his "not yet" verdict on membership of the euro, Mr Kinnock believes British timidity is already costing the country dear.

Sitting at the end of a long table in his spacious sixth-floor office in Brussels, Mr Kinnock sips a cup of coffee as he puts the best gloss on the snail's pace move to the euro.

He argues that there have been two big changes, the first that the pound/euro exchange rate is closer to a practical level, the second that the euro's rule book, the Stability and Growth Pact, is nearer to matching the Chancellor's rules in allowing flexibility for borrowing for public-sector investment.

"These are substantial objective changes, they strengthen the argument for going in," Mr Kinnock says.

He is equally clear on the growing costs of standing aloof and believes that, "in making the analysis it is definitely necessary to calculate the advantages of going in, to calculate the timing and conditions for going in, but also to make a very thorough assessment of the disadvantages of staying out.

"The costs of absence are substantial and they are going up," he says, quoting statistics for inward investment that speak for themselves. "It used to be the case that the UK had about a 30 per cent share of all non-EU investment into the EU. That's down to about 5 per cent." The euro offers huge advantages in reduced transaction costs and lack of currency volatility and, "in terms of net inward investment from outside the EU, the Netherlands now has a bigger share than the UK, which is astounding".

Mr Kinnock thinks it vital that the investors get a positive message today. "If the impression is given that the UK is going to be outside the euro for a very long time to come or even permanently ­ which is what the Conservatives want ­ that critically alters the potential investors' and current investors' perception of the UK."

This investment issue is the one reason he has not completely abandoned hope of a referendum in this parliament; he thinks the mood could change swiftly. "If the public gets hold of the reality about a sliding share of investment, and people understand what that implies, then the 'safety' argument is very very much on the 'yes' side. It is rarely the case in any significant political development that the safest thing is not to move: you get left behind."

That is clearly what Mr Kinnock thinks is happening as far as Britain's political influence in the EU is concerned. At present, Mr Brown is excluded from discussions among eurozone ministers but has a vote on all decisions including those that just affect the 12 nations inside the single currency. The EU's new draft constitution is certain to end that indulgence.

"In the [finance ministers'] council the person who would be the most lucid advocate of further change in the Stability and Growth Pact rules, Gordon Brown, can't be there," says Mr Kinnock. "Here again Britain is absent from the design stage, but nevertheless lives with the consequences of constructions substantially developed by others." From the Chancellor's statement today, Mr Kinnock hopes to see a new "stairway to entry" with the Government showing how it intends to manoeuvre sterling in.

He would like to see a body publishing neutral information on the euro and wants "collective [cabinet] involvement with some people continuing to have more prominence than others by virtue of their portfolio responsibilities" ­ he mentions the pro-euro Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, by name.

Mr Kinnock has reservations over other elements of government policy on Europe and is scathing about the idea of a permanent president of the European Council, which Mr Blair is pushing hard. "It's dysfunctional and that would be on a good day," he says. "If the office is established it will grow into a body and an additional institution in all but name, and the last thing the EU needs at the moment is an additional institution."

This is a plan that would add "to the politicking of the EU, [one] that doesn't do a damn for the European people." He thinks that in the end it will be neutered by its opponents insisting on a minimalist job description. There will then be an almighty problem finding a heavyweight to take on "a job where the role is more tightly defined than it is for the average soccer referee".

The Government is carping over the inclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights into the constitution. Mr Kinnock says that "in so far as [the charter] has significance it is generally positive". And ministers also oppose plans to set up a European public prosecutor to combat fraud against the EU tax-payer in any member state. Mr Kinnock characterises this as "a safeguard against criminals trying to pick countries in which justice was going to be long delayed, or maybe they thought, more concessionary".

Mr Kinnock left British politics some time ago and the length of his absence is beginning to show. Asked to comment on Robin Cook's resignation from the Government, he reminisces about how Mr Cook managed his Labour leadership campaign in 1988, then forgets who had challenged him. Even when reminded that it was Tony Benn, he remains unsure and strides to his bookshelf in search of a reference book.

He believes Mr Cook's departure is a significant loss to the Cabinet and that he would make a good European commissioner, though this may now be politically impossible.

Of Clare Short he is less complimentary, noting that "she didn't resign the last couple of times she went [from the Labour opposition front bench], she was removed." Nor is he impressed with her observation that two terms in Downing Street is enough for anyone's sanity, responding: "If one was seeking an authentic political, psychiatric analysis you would not automatically turn to Clare."

Loyal to his one-time protege Mr Blair, Mr Kinnock refuses to enter the controversy over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, saying he was "never preoccupied" with the issue.

He remains, however, deeply preoccupied with the media and political climate in Britain and supports more press curbs, a sentiment sharpened by the recent anti-European tabloid crusade. Mr Kinnock would like to see constraints restricting foreign and cross-media ownership. He say such measures "are just sensible in a democracy".

Although British broadcasters have an impressive poll rating for trust, the same does not apply to newspapers and Mr Kinnock is unimpressed by the Press Complaints Commission, despite its recent change of chairman. "Why is it that our fellow citizens only trust the football results in our newspapers and that's only if they have been to the game?" he asks.

He is also an advocate of compulsory voting, arguing that Britain must avoid "a situation where less than half the people turn out, and elected politicians therefore focus policy almost exclusively on the half that is going to vote. That is one-legged democracy and if compulsory voting is a way of preventing this slippage getting to that situation, it is worth working for."

What the future holds for 61-year-old Mr Kinnock after Brussels remains unclear and the Prime Minister's refusal to contemplate proper reform of the Lords makes a seat there a less attractive option. "It would be much easier for me to think in terms, if I was asked, of going to reform the Lords," Mr Kinnock says.

"There are campaign issues I want to get involved in, and some sport I want to see and some concerts I want to go to, and some books I want to read. That's about as definite as it is. I am not looking for a post, a job, a formal role."

THE CV

BORN: 28 March 1942, Tredegar, South Wales

EDUCATION: BA in Industrial Relations and History at University College, Cardiff. Postgraduate Diploma in Education

CAREER: 1966-70 Tutor, Organiser in industrial policy and trade union studies for the Workers' Educational Association

1970: Labour Member of Parliament for Bedwellty and Islwyn in South Wales.

1974-75: Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Employment

1978-94: Member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party

1979: Labour's Chief Opposition Spokesperson on Education

1980: Elected member of Labour's Shadow Cabinet

1983-92: Leader of the Labour Party, Vice-President of the Socialist International

1995-1999: Member of the European Commission, Transport (including trans-European networks)

1999: Vice president of the European Commission

Comments