Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Europe: Time to Show Some Initiative

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Europe: Time to Show Some Initiative

Article excerpt

While the latest reshuffle was under way, a rumour went around that Downing Street would appoint a secretary of state--a full cabinet minister--for Europe. It is a pity it didn't happen, because it could have transformed British politics.

First, it would have shown a leaderless Europe that Britain was prepared for a new role; second, it would have obliged David Cameron to appoint a shadow cabinet member for Europe, so exposing the Euroscepticism that endures in the Tory soul; and, third, it would have forced Whitehall to recognise Europe as a forum where Britain must be a commanding player.

Instead, our new Europe minister, Geoff Hoon, is not a full cabinet member and the chance has been lost. But as late-Blair politics take shape, Labour still needs a new policy on Europe. What is it to be?

The rest of Europe is paralysed. The French crisis deepens. Berlin's new coalition is not delivering growth. In Rome, Romano Prodi depends on 60 hardline communists, all hostile to Brussels. Spain's Socialist prime minister celebrated two years in office recently with a speech that did not mention Europe. Poland is now ruled by a coalition that is variously anti-German, anti-EU, anti-women, anti-gay and anti-Jew.

Britain, despite local difficulties, is the only big player that is seen as coherent, confident and competently led. Which makes it all the more disappointing that civil service traditionalism and prime-ministerial caution snuffed out the proposal to reshape Whitehall so that we could take the lead in Europe.

It is not a question of personalities. Margaret Beckett will maintain the steady pro-European line put in place by Tony Blair after 1997, but her red box will be full of pressing matters, from Iran and Iraq to the growing power of China and India, and from relations with Washington to the huge changes in Latin America. Europe will not get the attention it had when Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath made European affairs a cabinet post. …

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