Stella Creasy: ‘‘The left gives up far too easily sometimes. We get too grumpy’’

The Labour MP answers the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?

Medically, I would say probably IVF and transplant surgery. Our capacity to regenerate ourselves and our capacity not just to fix but to address health problems to give people hope is phenomenal. I guess the internet is the obvious candidate in terms of overall transformative capacity. And it’s still evolving all the time. Can you believe that Tony Blair didn’t send a single text message while he was prime minister?

And scientific invention?

I’d say the Higgs boson and also DNA, as we should recognise the input of Rosalind Franklin. It’s so important to me to understand the fabric of life.

And sporting event?

You could trace back to the 1913 Derby and Emily Wilding Davison. Or perhaps the 1972 Olympics, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, or the Olympics of 1968 with the Black Power salute. And then, of course, there are the 2012 Olympics.

Which book, film or work of art had the greatest effect on you?

One of my very favourite films of all time is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I love that film. There’s something about it a bit like Some Like It Hot – people get away with things, whereas usually people in films get their comeuppance. There’s a great line from Ferris Bueller that I use too much in politics: “Only the meek get pinched. The bold survive.”

Who is the most influential and significant politician of the past 100 years?

Evan Durbin – a Labour politician who sadly died saving a child from drowning [in 1948], and therefore never had the opportunity to realise his potential. It is a tragedy for us as the left to have lost him. He could have been an amazing character in our history. The left gives up far too easily sometimes, I think. We get too grumpy – well, I mean we get frustrated.

And the most influential writer?

Philip Larkin. That makes me sound like I was a really depressed teenager.

And artist?

Antony Gormley. He has really pushed contemporary art’s boundaries to people in a way that is very accessible. There is a pomposity sometimes about [British] art. His work is very meaningful in a very humble way.

How about anyone in business?

Henry Ford, clearly. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, too, because, within a generation, they revolutionised the world.

And a sportsperson?

Would you count [the skydiver] Felix Baumgartner as a sportsman? That was just amazing; when you look back at somebody training to jump from the edge of space, it is quite overwhelmingly inspiring.

And the most important philanthropist?

George Soros or Bill Gates. I think Soros is very interesting – consciously and ideologically – whereas Gates is well-meaning, but less overtly political about the choices that he makes.

Do you have a favourite quotation?

Apart from the one from Ferris Bueller? I have a lot. There’s Harold Wilson: “We are a moral crusade or nothing.” Or maybe Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Women are like tea bags. We don’t know our true strength until we are in hot water.”

How about a favourite speech?

Keir Hardie and “the sunshine of socialism” is a popular one to say, isn’t it? Keir Hardie was an amazing man in terms of his range and the things he brought together. We sometimes forget that on the left.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next 100 years?

We will have to be much more adaptable as a nation and as a world. There is a fantastic [Brazilian] professor, Roberto Unger, who talks about how the challenge of the left isn’t to redistribute resources but to redistribute entrepreneurship. To be able to take advantage of the way that the world is becoming strikes a chord with me.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

That we fracture into fighting the future, rather than shaping it. What we are seeing now in terms of the rise of the far right is, for me, an expression of anger and hatred rather than solidarity. It would be destructive if we allowed people to set themselves against each other and not recognise our mutual interests. We are not going to build a better country and a better world if people sit about like muppets.

What is the top priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?

I worry that we will carry on with the same people and the same mindset. The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results. If you do things differently, then you might surprise yourself.

Stella Creasy drawn by Ellie Foreman-Peck

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.