Is Britain heading for the EU exit?
No. British people recognise the reality that, especially in a globalised economy and in politically insecure times, our country’s best interests are served by being fully and influentially in the EU. The possibility of exit arises now only because David Cameron is trying to appease Europhobes in the Tory party with the pledge of an in/out referendum. That is pitiful, not patriotic. It means unnecessary risks when the UK already has a law requiring a referendum if a loss of sovereignty is proposed. It won’t even harvest votes for the Tories, any more than the referendum promise won votes for Labour in 1974. He’s just given sensible people from the centre and the left another big reason for defeating the Tories and stopping this reckless ripping wheeze in its tracks.
How can Ed Miliband now avoid also offering the British people an in/out referendum on Europe?
By continuing to demonstrate that specifying an in/out referendum in several years’ time over unclear issues in uncertain conditions with unknown outcomes maximises economic hazard and minimises political strength. Vital investment will be deterred by the possibility that the UK could be out of the single market before 2020; other member states will react against the Tories’ “meet our demands or we quit” menaces. Contrasting with Cameron’s concessions to his militant tendency, Ed Miliband has the courage and common sense to defend the national interest and make the case for modernising EU reform, not risking withdrawal.
Could Britain prosper like Norway or Switzerland, trading with Europe but not bound by every piece of red tape and regulation, and in control of its own borders?
Norway is in the European Economic Area and obliged to apply EU single-market regulations and other rules over which it has no influence because it is not a member state. Through over 200 bilateral treaties with the EU, Switzerland implements most Union law and, like Norway, contributes to the EU budget while having no EU legislative power. Both countries are part of the Schengen agreement and therefore have no border controls with EU member states other than the UK and Ireland.
How would you go about turning around British public opinion in support of continued EU membership?
Keep on telling the truth about the multiple economic and political advantages of EU membership in return for paying less than 1 per cent of our GNP, the risks and costs of losing them, and the scope for achieving improvement in the EU as a strong, effective participant. That works. In recent weeks, political leaders in Britain and other EU countries, President Obama, and senior figures in business and the unions have voiced clear practical reasons for committed and sustained UK engagement in the EU, and polls have shown opinion moving positively. There’ll be much more of that – and the facts will beat the phobias.
What was Britain’s reputation when you were a European commissioner in Brussels?
In 1995, when I went to the European Commission, people working for the EU in Brussels were impressed by the quality of British civil servants (that’s a constant), amazed and appalled by the fallacies and falsehoods of the Europhobic press (ditto), and bemused by a Tory government snarled up in Euroschism (plus ça change...). Election of the Blair government brought a tide of enthusiasm which receded with the “red lines” posturing in the grandiose “constitutional convention” and went out completely with the Iraq war. Affection for Brits has remained strong.
Do you regret that Tony Blair didn’t do more to take on the Eurosceptic press or, indeed, take Britain into the euro?
From a commanding political position, Tony could – and should – have asserted his genuine enthusiasm for an active leading UK role in the EU more consistently and forcefully. That would have benefited the UK and the EU and it would have been a vigorous – and salutary – rebuff to the Europhobe press. Like Tony, I favoured – with some qualifications – joining the euro. I was wrong and Gordon Brown’s view that the euro’s fundamentals didn’t fit the UK was right.
If there is a hung parliament after the next election, is a Labour/Lib Dem coalition plausible or workable?
It’s certain that Labour will fight relentlessly to win an overall majority. All other ruminations are gossip and guesswork.
Does the Labour Party still suffer from the image problem that dogged your leadership?
No. Despite the poisonous efforts of parts of the press, it is clear that Labour is a united, forward-looking party inspired by decent, enlightened values, committed to practical purposes and policies and fully in touch with the needs and aspirations of the mainstream majority of people. Ed Miliband shows skill, imagination, bravery and toughness in his leadership, and he has a very able team which, like him, is young, energetic and experienced in government.
How big a problem for Labour is it that the Chancellor’s shirkers vs strivers narrative to justify welfare cuts is so popular with voters?
George Osborne’s deprive and divide, fool and rule tactics will fail. Skivers are – rightly – loathed. But people can distinguish between them and those who have genuine needs and strive to get work, to improve skills and to earn a decent wage when they have a job. They can also see that slashing the benefits of those in work and out of work is inefficient as well as unjust because it simply reduces spending, adds to unemployment, increases damage to families and communities and multiplies costs to the country.
You are the father-in-law of the Danish prime minister. Can Danish-style coalition politics ever work in Britain? And how true to life is Borgen?
Managing a three-party coalition is an interesting task in any democracy but, since the UK doesn’t have the Danish PR system, such an election outcome is unlikely here. We greatly enjoy Borgen. It’s an excellent drama, brilliantly performed. If it were true to life, it would be much less gripping.