Peter Hain: My end-of-term report on the European Union

Taken from a speech delivered by the Minister for Europe to the Europe 21 group in Westminster
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When I became Minister for Europe, I promised no spin, no slogans on the EU. How should we rate the Government's performance in Europe? I want to attempt this without the techiespeak that Eurowonks use when they want to impress but can't be bothered to explain. So I thought I'd do it with numbers. By giving you an end-of-term report for the EU in 2001

First up, the notorious Common Agricultural Policy, which for many represents the worst of the EU. We spend more of the EU's money – your money – on the CAP than on any other single policy. My verdict: four out of 10. The CAP needs major reform. It makes our food cost more than it should. It causes waste. It's bureaucratic. It distorts world markets, hurting people in the Third World and getting in the way of trade with the US. In return for these dubious privileges, it costs the EU more than €40bn – or £25bn – per year. That is why CAP reform is a top priority for the Government.

What about the environment? Clear skies, pure water, clean beaches and a healthy environment come pretty high on most people's priorities. That's why the EU is tackling them. My mark? A high eight out of 10. Environment is one area where even the Eurosceptics can't pretend the UK is an island. Acid rain and global warming don't stop at Calais.

There's only one mark that matters on the euro – the number five. The Chancellor has set out five tests to judge whether it is in our interests to join. If those five tests are met, and the Government decides in favour and Parliament approves, we will put the final decision to the British people in a referendum. And if they aren't met, we won't. It is as simple as that.

Let's turn to another of our old friends, the unelected and unaccountable Brussels bureaucracy – which, as we are all told, is some "dark continental plot to dictate to Britain and drive us relentlessly to a federal superstate". There is a Euro bureaucracy: an independent Commission, a Council of the governments of the 15 member states, a European Parliament with 87 MEPs elected by the British people, and an independent court to ensure everyone abides by the law.

The biggest decisions are taken by the European Council – the leaders of the member states. And when the Council makes laws, they are usually made jointly with the European Parliament. Not much lack of accountability here. The Council is made up of representatives of democratically elected governments, accountable to their parliaments and their electorates. The Parliament is made up of democratically elected MEPs who are also at the mercy of their electorates every five years.

The Commission isn't elected: and that's right, because, like civil servants, they must be independent, acting for the good of everyone in Europe. Politicise them and they couldn't do that. But they are accountable – to the European Parliament directly and to the Council indirectly. And they are eminently sackable – as the whole Commission found out in 1999. I give the institutions pretty high marks for fairness and accountability. And for efficiency too. They deserve a seven out of 10.

So what about us? How do I rate the Labour government's own performance on Europe? I'll leave it to others to give us marks. But not even Alastair Campbell would try to claim 10 out of 10! We've done well by getting away from the old story of Britain alone and powerless in Europe. Which we were. If you don't win friends you lose arguments. If you don't start out positive about Europe, you end up with negative outcomes for Britain.

So where does the European Union come out overall? I think an eight out of 10. It's not perfect. No level of government is. Not Westminster. Not the Scottish or Welsh devolved authorities. Not even your local council. But, as Fred Astaire said when he was asked how he felt about old age, it's better than the alternative.

Comments