Denis Macshane: Britain can help to shape a new Europe

It will require new thinking and new networking from British politicians of all parties
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The Independent Online

Europe is creeping back into British politics. The days when British politicians pulled the duvet over their heads and hoped European Union issues would go away are over.

Gordon Brown opened a new round of European political debate with his CBI speech last night. His denunciation of "economic patriotism" challenges the French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, who has used this very phrase to defend made-in-Paris protectionism.

The success stories in contemporary Europe from Spain to Ireland are all those countries which have been the most positive about opening their borders to new economic ideas, new people, and new investment. In his formative years, Brown was the most pro-European young Labour politician in Parliament, and his first big act in 1997 was to copy the rest of Europe and give independence to Britain's central bank. Across Europe, political leaders are asking whether a pro-European Brown will emerge.

A decade after Tony Blair promised a new British approach to Europe on being elected to office, the old arguments over the euro and the constitution are just that: old arguments. The failure of the big EU economies - France, Germany and Italy - to reform and grow in the past decade has killed any chance of Britain entering the euro in the near future. The EU constitution is dead. The political necrophilia of those EU leaders who insist the corpse can be kissed back to life is distasteful and time-wasting. But after the French election in less than a year's time, the pace of EU institutional change will accelerate.

Britain has to be ready. Angela Merkel is emerging as the EU leader who knows what she wants to say and means it. She will forge an alliance with a new president in France, also possibly a woman, to drive forward a new EU agenda.

The desire for reform and change - including tackling further reduction in CAP expenditure - is evident amongst many progressive politicians of left and right arguing for EU renewal across the continent.

Britain can play a part by helping to shape a networking Europe so that the ideas put forward by the Chancellor last night are made in French, in German, or Italian and Polish, or on CAP reform in English in Dublin. Stand-alone speeches have little impact unless Whitehall and Westminster, the CBI and TUC create a network of influence so that a modernisation agenda becomes necessary politics across the EU.

British business is beginning to wake up to this necessity. For too long, a cosy complacency has filled boardrooms with the nostrums of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph that the EU was just a far-away problem Britain should have nothing to do with.

As a result, bad decisions have been made in Brussels. The CBI and other groupings have not made common cause with their opposite numbers in Paris, Berlin, Rome or Madrid to argue the case for economic renewal and a resounding defeat of the sirens of protectionism.

A new grouping, Business for New Europe, is pulling together our most dynamic companies to start making the case for Europe in a way that is long overdue. The millions of holiday passengers who use easyJet or who can live freely in properties in Spain, France and soon Bulgaria and Croatia need to think what Europe would be like if EU rules did not oblige competition in low-cost flight or the right to live and work where we want.

In the middle of all this, there is one massive UK problem. When will the Conservative Party ditch its visceral anti-Europeanism? Top European right-wingers like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are concerned that the new-look Tories want to distance themselves from fellow EU conservatives. Poland's Defence Minister, Radek Sikorski, like David Cameron a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford, has appealed to his Tory chums to embrace Europe and make common cause with new EU member states which see their future guaranteed by EU memberships.

William Hague can make jokes like "If anyone's got a history of making themselves feel at home in other people's countries, it's the Germans", but such isolationist buffoonery weakens Britain's standing and influence in the EU. As foreign affairs spokesmen go, it would be helpful if William Hague went.

Britain can shape a new Europe, but it will require new thinking and new networking from British politicians of all parties. Otherwise Britain will find itself reacting defensively to decisions made by EU politicians of left and right unafraid to show leadership and taking little heed of what anyone in London says.

The writer was Europe Minister, 2002-5