Neil Kinnock was at the centre of a political storm in Brussels yesterday after he questioned two of the EU's most firmly entrenched aims. In a private speech, the Transport Commissioner and former Labour leader questioned whether Europe will be ready for a single currency on time, and said he doubted whether the European Union should be rushing towards accepting new members in the East
Mr Kinnock was yesterday summoned to explain himself to the Commission President, Jacques Santer. When he made the speech, Mr Kinnock underlined that he was speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the Commission. "I stress that these are the views of a Commissoner and not the views of the Commisson, indeed in many respects I acknowledge that I may currently be in a minority."
But the speech raised hackles within the European commission as it appears to breach the collective responsibility of the EU's executive bureaucracy, and challenges a fundamental tenet of policy.
Speaking to business managers in Bracknell on Friday, Mr Kinnock said that "the prospect of monetary union (not in 1999 by the way, that is still unrealistic in my view, just as 1997 has been) should not, of course, be approached fatalistically."
Mr Kinnock also said the timetable for enlargement was "unrealistic" and gave the EU's neighbours false hopes. The expansion process should be slowed down, he said, and the EU should offer far more help to its east neighbours in preparing for eventual membership. The West ought to take the approach to the East that was taken towards the war-ruined economies of Europe in the 1940s and 1950s.
Aides say that the former Labour leader has become frustrated by the lack of realism which pervades some Brussels policy-making. The comments may also echo the more sceptical line on Europe which the Labour Party has been expressing in recent weeks.
Mr Kinnock called for a "real debate" on the costs and risks of the changeover to a single currency and suggested the economic criteria for joining, set out in the Maastricht treaty, should be extended. Each country's record on employment, investment and productivity ought to be taken into account, he said, in addition to the economic and monetary criteria currently required.
The Labour Party, which is taking a cautious line on European integration ahead of the next election, will have read Mr Kinnock's comments with interest. Tony Blair, the Labour leader, maintains close contact with Mr Kinnock, although a Labour spokeswoman made clear yesterday there had been no consultation between them before the speech. Labour has made no commitment to go ahead with monetary union in 1999, should it win the next election, saying the decision should be taken nearer the time. Although Labour supports moves towards enlargement, it accepts the process could take time.
Mr Kinnock said it would ultimately be in Britain's interests to join a single currency. "The choice will be between membership of a monetary union and domination by a monetary union," he said. He attacked people who were "foaming at the mouth over 'losing the Queen's head' or 'conceding monetary power' ".
But Mr Kinnock said he believed his views would become "conventional" within the relatively near future.