Hewitt admits business is sceptical on Europe

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Patricia Hewitt will tell sceptical British businessmen today that Tony Blair is planning to "hit the ground running" after the election with a campaign to secure a "yes" vote in the referendum on the European constitution.

Patricia Hewitt will tell sceptical British businessmen today that Tony Blair is planning to "hit the ground running" after the election with a campaign to secure a "yes" vote in the referendum on the European constitution.

Speaking to The Independent on the eve of her annual Mansion House speech, the Trade and Industry Secretary admitted for the first time that many businessmen were sceptical and that the Government had failed to give the lead needed to win a vote.

She said Mr Blair was planning to tackle the growing scepticism about Europe among the business community immediately after the election, which is expected on 5 May. Ms Hewitt revealed that the 60th anniversary of VE [Victory in Europe] Day on 8 May was seen by ministers as the right moment to launch the campaign for the "yes" vote.

Ms Hewitt said her speech today was part of a concerted campaign by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Trade Secretary "to make sure, immediately after the election, we hit the ground running in terms of preparing for a successful referendum campaign".

She added: "The starting point is a recognition that there has been quite a shift in mood among the business community in the last four or five years. A lot of business people who were pretty pro-European some years back are increasingly sceptical."

Ms Hewitt said the failure to tackle the scepticism among businessmen was partly the fault of the Government. "I think all of us would accept, looking back, we have not done enough over the past seven years of making the case for Britain in Europe," said the Trade Secretary. "We made the mistake by focusing for many years on the issue of the single currency because that was the big decision we had to make. But also, when we had come to the conclusion that we couldn't recommend joining the single currency, we continued to take it for granted that Britain would remain a member, and a leading member, of the European Union and that the public, and the business community in particular, would go on supporting that. What we needed to do was to keep making the argument and we didn't do that."

She added: "The more I talk to business people about the referendum and the treaty the more convinced I am that we will win this referendum."

Business people had become increasingly sceptical about Europe because they had seen a very strong economy in Britain and slow growth, and a reluctance to make the necessary reforms in some of the eurozone countries. Businessmen had also become frustrated by badly drawn directives from Brussels, she said.

Ms Hewitt said Britain would be plunged into a crisis in its relationships with the rest of Europe if the referendum - expected in early 2006 - produced a "no" vote.

"This is now our best chance really in a generation to shape Europe in the way we want in Britain," she concluded.

Comments