NS Interview - Denis MacShane
The minister for Europe on how the euro (''that damn currency'') has become a fetish and how he told
Denis MacShane keeps the blue flag flying. The European Union flag stands resplendent alongside the Union Jack in his office. It provides his computer with its screensaver. He is the lone proselytiser in a government that dare not espouse the cause.
Britain, he says, is "extremely respected" in every EU capital, even after the Iraq conflict. The UK is "listened to in a way it was not before". Its economic agenda, which he calls "permanent reformism", is setting the trend. As the minister for Europe, he turns down many invitations from other countries to extol "the achievements of Britain under the Labour government".
MacShane recalls a phone call from a French journalist. "He said to me: 'Britain has won in Brussels: you have got an Atlanticist, pro-business president of the [European] Commission; you have one of the most important portfolios for a Brit; the constitution was written in London; Britain holds key posts in the bureaucracy. What have you got to say?' I said: 'The only thing I've got to say is: Would you please come and edit the Daily Mail?'"
This is what frustrates MacShane and the dwindling band of outspoken Europhiles in government. They insist that Britain is winning the battle in Europe, if only people realised. The flip side of the history of the past seven years, if the opinion polls are to be believed, is that Europe is losing the battle in Britain.
Like many in this government, MacShane sees the media as the source of most of its troubles. He cites the recent hysteria over EU enlargement. As the son of a Polish army officer, he describes as "personally very moving" the occasion when the Polish prime minister announced his country's decision to join the Union. By chance, MacShane happened to be sitting in Blair's seat at the summit at which this happened. He sees the arrival of the central and eastern Europeans as good. "I never cease to remind my French friends that the Polish army held out longer than the French army did in May 1940."
Instead, the Conservatives, "with the help of the anti-European tabloids, launched probably one of the most shameful campaigns in British politics, that was xenophobic and quite disgusting, with the language used about Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and Slovaks", he says. "It was quite a tough fight inside government to ensure that we didn't impose the same restrictions [on visitors from the new EU member states and their rights to work] that other countries did." MacShane says he argued strongly that there "wouldn't be a great invasion, that we needed their economic skills, that it was better to have people in the legal economy paying tax and National Insurance". MacShane was attacked by some for describing Eurosceptics as xenophobic. He is adamant: "I remain convinced that that is a perfectly fair adjective and I won't resile from it."
When was the last time, aside perhaps from pronouncements by MacShane and a couple of others, that the government launched a concerted campaign to persuade voters of the merits of Europe? How many roadshows have been announced, never to get on the road? "I do my modest best," the minister and former journalist says. "Perhaps I am a pathfinder rather than the main bomber squadron." He goes on: "I've got a computer full of unpublished articles which have made the case at different times over the past two years. I am happy to accept any offers from any editor." As for Blair, he "regularly makes very important speeches" on Europe. "What no one can do is persuade the Westminster culture that these words are important and worth serious courage."
Is MacShane satisfied with the level of European endeavour in the government? He admits: "A lot can and should be done. I would invite my fellow ministers to say we gain nothing from criticising Europe directly or indirectly." Before that can be interpreted as a dig at Gordon Brown, he hastily adds: "I fully share the need to make the case for reform of how Europe works." He suggests that the Conservatives will have to learn Labour's lesson and realise that they will become electable again only once they shed their "anti-European skin". At the same time, their "virulent" position makes it harder for Labour to make the case for the EU - a logic I struggle to understand. After all, who is the government here?
Soon a battle that has long been shirked will be joined, in the referendum on the EU constitution scheduled for early 2006. MacShane works from the assumption that the other 24 countries will say "yes". The French Socialists' decision to back the treaty makes that more likely. "If Britain goes the other way, nobody should underestimate that this will give a very powerful boost to the out-and-out isolationist camp. Britain would then have a huge problem, not Europe." So how will the government shift opinion? "By facts. We've got to do campaigning, starting now, to make a case for Europe that I believe we should have been making over the past few years." That, he says, will require considerable effort and money. If state coffers are used to provide facts on Nato and on overseas development, then why not on the EU constitution? "It is the duty of government to put the facts before people. We need to find adequate resources, because the No campaign is spending literally hundreds of millions. If the government's honour is engaged, if the future of the nation is at stake - and I believe that isolating ourselves from Europe would be a disaster for Britain - then it is reasonable to explain the facts to the British people." He also urges that "a lot of people who have got money, businesses in particular, have not woken up" to the potential disaster of disengagement from Europe.
I ask MacShane to shed light on the events last Easter when his boss, Jack Straw, appeared to bounce Blair into a referendum he had previously refused to countenance.
MacShane admits that he was won over after a Commons debate in which not a single speaker discussed the substance of the constitutional treaty, but merely the question of whether people were to be given a say. When the Liberal Democrats demanded that it be put to the vote, "I turned to Jack and said: 'Jack, we're fucked. We've got to give a referendum. I don't think we can hold out.' There was no counterpush. I don't remember a single statement by a pro-European saying we shouldn't have a referendum."
He regards the launch of the Britain in Europe group in 1999 as an example of how not to persuade the people. The referendum campaign should "not be about big leaders. I don't think just putting the Prime Minister and Charlie Kennedy and Chris Patten on a bus, rattling around Britain making speeches, will be enough." While Britain in Europe would have a role, it would be a "great mistake" to have a campaign that is "top-down and centralised. This will be a real people's campaign that will involve the small platoons."
The heart of the battle will be to reconnect people's positive experiences of Europe with the political arguments. "Every time the people have been offered anti-Europeanism, whether it was [by] Labour in the 1980s, or [by] the Tories in the past couple of elections, they have overwhelmingly rejected it. Which is the real Britain? The lived experience of a Continental culture of cafes, ID cards, Italian and French restaurants, of people driving around in European cars? Or the constituent who knocks on my door and says: 'We don't want to be told what to do by the French and the Germans.' Who speaks for Britain? The editor of the Daily Mail, or Ryanair and easyJet?" He is confident of victory. "I expect we will wake up after the referendum and ask: 'What was all the fuss about?'"
It need not have been so difficult. "Part of the problem was that we entered government making the euro a litmus test for being good Europeans. It was a huge cul-de-sac because we had made no technical or economic preparations to get anywhere close to euro entry in 1997. I kept on saying: 'There's more to Europe than the euro.'" I suggest that Labour missed the boat twice, not just in 1997, but in 2001 as well - two landslide victories for a party that was supposed to be ardently pro-European.
"Name one thing we should have done," MacShane retorts. "The euro?" I counter. "John, for fuck's sake, the euro . . . this really drives me mad . . . I represent a steel constituency. Under no circumstances would I have voted in the first four or five years of the Labour government, at the rate the pound was against the euro, to go into the currency. I kept saying to people: 'Stop going on about the euro . . .' I haven't met a serious European politician who says to me any more: 'When are you going into the euro?'"
Perhaps that might be because they know we've given up on it? "No, it is because economically it is irrelevant. We've made a fetish of this damn currency in a completely unreal way."
Britain's growth of recent years, MacShane says, had nothing to do with currency decisions, and everything to do with economic management. Jacques Chirac recently asked him to account for the UK's success. "We've got a progressive, reformist, social-democratic, active labour market, not the needs dictated by the Jacobin centralised state. I used this language to him . . . in French."