Congratulations, Mr Blair, on finally speaking up for Europe. Now for an encore

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Government has often seemed reluctant to confront the Eurosceptics head on. Now at last, at an important moment for the European Union, the tide may be ready to turn. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and Tony Blair have declared themselves ready, in Mr Cook's phrase, to "retake the patriotic ground".

The Government has often seemed reluctant to confront the Eurosceptics head on. Now at last, at an important moment for the European Union, the tide may be ready to turn. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and Tony Blair have declared themselves ready, in Mr Cook's phrase, to "retake the patriotic ground".

The Independent has repeatedly criticised the Government over its reluctance to confront the Eurosceptics in the Tory party. The Government has shown an extraordinary belief that it can somehow fight the next general election without tackling the issue of Europe. That failure of leadership is one important reason why support for the EU has fallen to a new low. It is gratifying to see that this timidity is now being at least partly abandoned.

The change of tack comes at an important moment. The EU stands at a crossroads, with a historic summit next month about the future of the Union and the way that it should work. Enlargement to the east means that more streamlined decision-making will be essential.

At the summit in Nice in three weeks' time, the European leaders will grapple with the questions of how to reform the Union's voting system. Britain is determined to preserve the national veto on questions of tax and social security, including the fight against fraud.

The Tories have sought to portray every change as part of a conspiracy to build a European superstate. Anything connected with taxation is seen as the thin end of a Euro-tax wedge. But it need not be like that. Mr Cook was right yesterday to ask why Eurosceptics refuse to believe that Britain can project its national interest and identity as effectively as other EU countries do.

The Europhobes behave as though Brussels were hell-bent on destroying Britain as we know it. In reality, European diversity remains as strong as citizens wish it to be. The economic arguments for European unity - including the benefits for Britain as a hub of investment - are clear. But broader arguments are important, too. In many key areas - including health, education, transport and social policies - we can learn from our European neighbours. This is not a question of Brussels diktat; it is simply a case of shared values and aspirations.

At next month's summit, Britain must engage constructively in discussion about the future of the Union, not simply yap annoyingly from the sidelines (while pretending to be centre-stage), as if the Thatcher era had never ended.

As the next general election looms, the Conservatives believe that they are on to a winner by emphasising their distrust of all things European. They must be proved wrong. Defensiveness about Europe will get the Government nowhere.

So, while welcoming this sudden boldness from the Government, we retain a degree of caution as to whether it will stick to its Euro-guns. On too many previous occasions, it has seemed ready to tackle the Eurosceptics, only to lose its nerve - not just on the euro, but on a string of other European issues. Let's hope this signifies the start of a new direction.

The rewards for speaking out could be substantial. If Tony Blair and his colleagues - including Mr Cook and even the cautious Chancellor, Gordon Brown - are ready to stand up and be counted, so much the better, for both sides of the debate. About time, too.

Comments