Cook's tour of Europe: a guide

The shadow foreign secretary tells John Lichfield how Labour will make the EU relevant to people's lives
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The Independent Online
Not for Robin Cook a typical political summer, skulking in the prettiest corners of Europe; Mr Cook is seeking to bring Europe to Britain. The shadow foreign secretary will spend the month on tour, taking Labour's new pro-European gospel to the provinces. (If it is 9 August, then it must be Leeds tonight.)

Preaching for Europe? In August? Robin Cook, the one-time leading Labour anti-marketeer?

Mr Cook has made a speciality of summer campaigns. Last year his project was to rescue the Post Office from privatisation. Now he is trying to persuade Britain to clear its eyes, simultaneously, of suntan lotion and anti-European propaganda.

Is this not a hopelessly quixotic undertaking, something like offering overcoats to tourists in Trafalgar Square? Not really, he insists, August is a good month in which to make oneself heard. Anyway, the campaign is not to promote Europe as such; it is to promote Labour's policies for making Europe more relevant and effective for "the hopes, the fears of families in Britain".

"The whole thrust of our campaign is to get off the debate about Europe as a set of institutions with complex and baffling rules, and present it as something that connects with men and women in pursuit of their daily lives.

"We are not in Europe to have recondite and impenetrable arguments about the weighting of qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers. If we are in Europe to stay - and we are - we must make it into a success for real people and real families. It has become abundantly clear that this is not something which can be delivered by a Tory government."

Labour's policies are described in a remarkable pamphlet, A People's Europe, a kind of glossy, souvenir brochure of the Cook summer roadshow. The policies it contains are mostly unexceptional, a melange of existing Labour policy and existing EU policy on jobs, consumer rights and the environment. What makes the document remarkable is its tone of voice. It must count as the most wholeheartedly Europeanist document ever issued by the Labour Party, and one of the most warmly pro-European documents issued by any British political party.

Here are a few extracts: "Britain's membership of the European Union is crucial to the job prospects of our people ... Europe can offer its people a fairer deal in the shops ... Europe has a crucial role to play in protecting and improving the environment of its peoples ... European integration has ... brought decades of peace and stability to a continent accustomed to centuries of conflict."

This is the kind of rhetoric one associates with Continental politicians or the European Commission. One goggles to see it in a document from a British party whose official policy, until 10 years ago, was withdrawal. How can Mr Cook square his present role as the party's European John the Baptist with his previous incarnation as intellectually persuasive anti- marketeer?

There has been no sudden shift, Cook insists. As long ago as 1984, after Labour lost the election, he was charged by Neil Kinnock with rebuilding the party's European policy. It was accepted that, before the next election, Britain would have been in the Community for 15 years, and the whole structure of the British economy and trade would have been irrevocably changed by membership. There could be no going back.

But is there not a world of difference between that cold acceptance of political reality and the warmth of tone of the People's Europe pamphlet? Maybe, he says. But if you accept we are staying in the EU - and all but a handful of Tory crazies accept that we are - you might as well embrace membership wholeheartedly and make it work for the Labour Party and the people of Britain.

The word from within the party is that Tony Blair and Robin Cook agonised for a time before deciding to go for broke on a positive European line. Partly this was Blair's gut instinct; partly it is intended to emphasise the newness of New Labour. Partly, they believe, it is strategically the right thing to do to wrongfoot the Tories. British people, especially young people, are sick of the bickering about Europe, senior party officials say. They are ready to hear a more positive message.

Whatever one's view on Europe, it must be a good thing for British democracy that one of the two major political parties should pick up the positive end of the European argument. The debate has been one-sided for too long.

But Labour appears to believe it can have its cake and its penny (its pound and its ecu?). Mr Cook insists that nothing in the document implies belief in a European super-state; this is undoubtedly true. But there are proposals - on new powers for the European parliament, on EU enlargement, on making the Council of Ministers more open to public scrutiny, which do imply a strengthening of the Union at the centre.

Mr Cook talks of the EU as an "association of free member states sharing common interests". But it is much more than this: it is a supra-national body, the only political creature of its kind; a body of laws and commitments which transcends the laws of member states. Mr Cook declines to accept that this is so; he says the old Gatt had similar powers. But this misses the point.

British politicians have traditionally addressed Europe with their back to it, pretending that the EU is some kind of voluntary, co-operative society. This is the source of much of the obfuscation and vilification about the EU. Labour's proposals for more accountability and democracy in Brussels - to be spelt out more fully in September - make perfectly good sense. But they do have implications for national sovereignty and the relative power of the EU as an institution.

Mr Cook is impatient with such arguments. "There you go again," he says. "It always comes back to the music of the spheres, to arcane institutional questions. That's not what the people of Britain want to talk about. I can tell you that qualified majority voting is not a topic of conversation in my pub."

Fair enough; but not fair enough. It is the Labour document which addresses the "arcane institutional question" of lack of EU accountability and democracy. The secretiveness in Brussels is mostly in the service of one national interest or another; it is the way the member states conspire to make the EU more flexible, less harmonised and less federal. Arguments about voting powers of member states and the refusal to publish the minutes of the Council of Ministers are arguments about how powerful the Community should be in relation to its member states. They cannot be wished away. Is this not the conundrum at the heart of the Community?

"Very well, if you are saying that you have to accept an EU which is non-accountable and non-democratic, because otherwise you'll get in trouble with the Euro-sceptics and the Tory press, then I say I'd rather have an institution which is accountable. Institutions which are not accountable begin by ignoring their citizens' interests and end up by acting against their citizens' interests."