Denis MacShane: We need to start talking to Europeans

Agreeing with each other about CAP isn't enough. We have to make our case in Europe

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Quelle surprise! The French want our money back and we want their cows to stand on their own four udders instead of licking up lashings of CAP lolly from the poor old British taxpayer. Foghorns boom across the Channel and handbags at dawn loom.

Quelle surprise! The French want our money back and we want their cows to stand on their own four udders instead of licking up lashings of CAP lolly from the poor old British taxpayer. Foghorns boom across the Channel and handbags at dawn loom.

Yet absolutely nothing new is being said. The speeches denouncing the CAP are as predictable today as they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Tories and Trots, Oxfam and the CBI, Labour and Liberal-Democrats can all purr in contented agreement that on the CAP pro-Europeans and anti-EU zealots are in unison.

The CAP is outrageously protectionist, although not as hostile to the Third World as the protectionist agro-policies of the United States or Japan. But the CAP should go. Yet this cause is not advanced by everyone in London agreeing with everyone else in London. Europe is a political process, and to change EU policy it is necessary to think and engage politically. This is an art that Britain has not yet learnt.

Three developments could alter this. The first is to accept that, in EU affairs, diplomacy is not enough. The UK has the most admired and professional diplomats working on EU affairs. In the corridors and meeting rooms of Brussels, they find words to build a bridge of sighs between apparently impossible positions over which ministers can walk serenely.

But decisions in Europe are shaped in Europe's capitals and by national political classes. Here Whitehall, with its inbuilt nervousness of anything that smacks of political engagement, fails to promote the policy interests of Britain, which require intense political networking to make friends and influence the policy-makers of Europe.

As in Britain, it is national politicians and national parties that decide policy in other EU member states. Until we shape a British political class that is at ease in debates in Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Warsaw and so on, we will not change policy in the direction we want. Making speeches in English in England and expecting anyone in Athens or Amsterdam to take note is naive. Sir Digby Jones of the CBI has written an important pamphlet for the Foreign Policy Centre urging MPs to become more involved in EU policy-making. His ideas should be taken up.

The second development is to encourage British NGOs, business groups, trade unions and even churches to put their arguments to their sister organisations in the rest of Europe. It is no use Oxfam producing an elegant report calling for CAP reform to help the world's poor if no one in Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece is going to read it. Government could help with setting up a European policy foundation to pay for translation and conferences so that progressive British ideas on EU reform could reach a continental audience. British cardinals might talk to their Bavarian and Italian brothers and ask them to see how CAP reform might help the world's poor in line with church teaching. Few British trade unions or business groups have a fully-staffed, multi-lingual European department, able to network effectively across Europe. An office in Brussels is no substitute for active networking and interventions in national capitals.

The third development is the most tricky. For the first half of my 30-odd years of Labour Party membership, the Labour Party was a bit of a joke in Europe. It took the leadership of Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and the Labour pro-European reformers to turn this around. For the last 15 years, the Conservative Party has wallowed in the dirty bathwater of anti-Europeanism which Labour left behind.

Yet today, 19 of the 25 EU member states are headed by conservative parties. None of them has any relationship with today's Tories who are seen everywhere in the EU as irredeemably Eurosceptic. Moreover, 90 per cent of British political energy on EU questions is devoted to out internal feuds mediated by a partisan anti-European press.

Britain will not be able to lead the campaign for European reform until the main opposition party becomes coherent on Europe, and the isolationism of the anti-European press is faced down, in much the same way that Baldwin crushed the newspaper bosses who were trying to run British policy in the 1930s.

The latter may be too much to hope for, but nothing stops Whitehall, Parliament and big players like the CBI and the TUC, as well as our great campaigning outfits like Oxfam and the churches, from making Britain's case for a new EU. Agreeing with each other that CAP should go is not enough. We have to make our case across the Channel.

The writer is Labour MP for Rotherham and was Minister for Europe 2002-5

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