Peter Hain: Europe must modernise and reform to win the respect of its people

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The Independent Online

Nowhere has British policy development and public debate been more crippled by language and labels than on Europe.

Within minutes of my appointment last month, I was dubbed a "Eurosceptic". Yet by background and conviction there is nobody less a "little Englander" in the Government than me. Why should politicians be labelled either Eurosceptic or Europhile? Like most people, I am neither. I am just as opposed to Europhobia as I am to Euro zealotry.

So this is an appeal for plain speaking on Europe. No political spin, no media hype, no pejorative prejudice. Just an honest, straight discussion of difficult but momentous issues.

British politicians have a responsibility here. So do Europe's leaders and technocrats. So, too, does Britain's media. European stories are usually reported – and then reacted to by politicians – in confrontational and simplistic language.

Trying to analyse and explain unfamiliar ideas is much harder than reaching for the nearest caricature. The European Union is an unfamiliar idea – independent nation states working together to make themselves stronger. Historic nations, such as Britain, France and Germany, have not tried anything like this before. It is no wonder that many are puzzled when its complexities are reduced to cliché.

I am up for a robust debate and I respect different views, sincerely held, about Europe's future. But we need an intelligent debate about what is really happening – not a debate trapped in a time-warp caricature of doughty Britons versus fiendish foreigners.

The world has moved on since Margaret Thatcher hung up her handbag. It is time for the media to move on too, beyond a sort of Basil Fawlty approach to Europe – "don't mention the benefits". But for people to see the real benefits of the EU we in all the governments of Europe need to cut through the Eurospeak that makes it hard for them to do so.

The pitiful turnout in the last European elections showed the big gap between the EU and its citizens. The Irish referendum showed it, too: turnout low, answer no.

We need plain language, not Eurobabble understood only by an élite and virtually unintelligible to a new Europe minister like me, let alone an average voter. At summits, politicians and journalists are trapped in a security-cordoned bubble talking to each other. Then they talk the same summitspeak to a perplexed world. For example:

"The Antici Group considers that agreement at the next GAC is crucial for the following IGC, so the troika and PSC must be consulted to get consensus among the presidencies, especially over any extension of QMV in the second or third pillars, but then again ESDP could also be affected by action in the first pillar if the commission intervenes through conciliation given the parliament's right to co-decision with the council."

OK, I made that one up – though it is uncomfortably close to the real thing. We need a new popular language if we are to reconnect the EU to its citizens, to show that we are in fact talking about the things the really matter – jobs, prosperity, security, social justice and the environment.

Equally, it is not inevitable that in European negotiations British ministers must be either be trapped and weak in isolation or crowing in victory. Why should we allow every European gathering to be presented in such juvenile terms in media coverage or parliamentary debate?

We must engage, positively and determinedly, with our European counterparts. Why are the Eurosceptics so carpingly pessimistic? If our ideas are right, we stand a good chance of winning the argument.

Like on the idea of being seduced into a European "superstate". Let's have some plain speaking here too. A "superstate" would have an elected central government, a parliament with the power to tax and determine public spending, a standing army, a foreign policy independent of its constituent states and the power to declare war.

None of this exists now. And it won't in the future. Because none of these changes could happen without the agreement of every member state. Britain doesn't want it. And even if some European leaders seem to advocate it, when you read the speeches (and not simply the headlines) of leaders such as Schröder, Chirac, Jospin and Aznar, you find that they don't want it either. More importantly, the people of Europe don't want it. Quite simply, it isn't going to happen.

Let's also be more confident – and get more real – about our "sovereignty". Does getting more involved in Europe mean that we will give up our sovereignty? No, because there is a difference between giving up sovereignty and choosing to pool it because this is something that promotes British interests.

We have already "given up" our right to do what we like in defending Britain by taking up membership of Nato – we pool sovereignty with the United States and with other member nations because, by doing so, Britain has stronger defences. Anybody attacking Britain invites retaliation from all the Nato countries. Nato shows that pooling sovereignty in appropriate policy areas can make nations stronger.

But not everything emanating from Brussels is desirable. Much is unintelligible to the general public. Europe needs to modernise as Britain is modernising, and its economy needs urgent reform to be competitive.

More of Europe isn't always the right answer. There are areas where more European action is desirable: fighting cross-border crime and people-trafficking, for example. But there are plenty of other areas, such as taxation, where decisions must be taken in London by our own Parliament, not in Brussels.

So I am practical about Europe. I want to deliver real things for real people: full employment, equal rights, an end to injustice and poverty. Up and down Britain, people know that being in Europe is good for our country. They may not care for Eurospeak. They are not heady about Europe. They are practical Europeans, too.

Practical Europeans want a Europe that works for Britain. We must get stuck in to win the argument to build our kind of Europe: a Europe of the people, not a Europe of the élites.


The writer is Minister of State

for Europe