EU involvement is in our national interest

From a speech by Keith Vaz, the Minister for Europe to the Cardiff Chamber of Commerce

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UK-wide opinion polls continue to show a decline in public support for our membership of the EU. I am convinced that one of the main obstacles to reversing this decline is the anti-European press. The xenophobic approach to Europe in some of our national newspapers is blighting the public debate. All too often we see articles and "opinion pieces" which either misrepresent policy or deal with fiction rather than facts. When confronted with a complex issue relating to negotiations between the 15 Member States, many journalists seem to lose interest. But by politicising straightforward issues - or even spreading anti-EU propaganda - they are clouding the debate.

UK-wide opinion polls continue to show a decline in public support for our membership of the EU. I am convinced that one of the main obstacles to reversing this decline is the anti-European press. The xenophobic approach to Europe in some of our national newspapers is blighting the public debate. All too often we see articles and "opinion pieces" which either misrepresent policy or deal with fiction rather than facts. When confronted with a complex issue relating to negotiations between the 15 Member States, many journalists seem to lose interest. But by politicising straightforward issues - or even spreading anti-EU propaganda - they are clouding the debate.

We want to encourage a balanced debate about Europe which puts as much information as possible at the fingertips of the general public. On an issue of such national importance, we owe the electorate no less.

The business community clearly has some specific concerns about Europe and the Single Market which the Government needs to address. So far, I think we have done a good job; but we still have a great deal to do.

On the economic front, perhaps our most significant achievement so far has been in securing EU-wide consensus at the Lisbon Council in March to embrace reforms to bring the European economy into the 21st century. As the Prime Minister remarked at the time:

"The Council marks a sea change in European economic thinking - away from heavy-handed intervention and regulation, towards a new approach based on enterprise, innovation and competition."

Thanks to Lisbon, our economic reform agenda is now the economic reform agenda for Europe. We have sent a clear message that the EU needs to match UK dynamism and business-friendliness in order to create the conditions for increased employment in Europe. Since Lisbon, many anti-Europeans have suggested that some member states will pay lip service to the reform agenda while maintaining their protectionist ways.

I am happy to disappoint them. Since Lisbon, member states have agreed to launch a Small Firms Charter to help the Union's SMEs [Small- and Medium-Size Enterprises] adapt to the challenges of the single market. And the adoption of an eEurope Action Plan will help the continent to enjoy the benefits of the new economy.

These are the sorts of policy outcomes which will, over time, lead to benefits measurable in terms of profits and jobs. And this is just the beginning. At Lisbon we agreed a long list of objectives. Let me list a few of them: faster liberalisation of gas, electricity and transport sectors, implementation of a Financial Services Action Plan by 2005, development of action plans to combat social exclusion, development of a strategy for removal of barriers to services.

When implemented, all of these measures should contribute to a more prosperous Europe, delivering jobs for her citizens and increased profits for her companies.

I would like to conclude by offering an upbeat assessment of the Government's performance in Europe so far. I am confident that our approach has brought about a sea change in the attitude of EU partners to the UK. Member states listen to our views; and in certain areas such as economic reform and European defence we are leading the debate.

The anti-European cri de coeur is, of course, that we have done so at the expense of our national interest and our sovereignty.

I would argue quite the opposite: that while the UK remains a constructive partner positively engaged in the European enterprise, we safeguard the social and economic prosperity of our citizens; that our active engagement advances our national interest, and that it maximises our influence in the most important club in the world.

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