Time to show some initiative

Observations on Europe

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. And yet the politics of Europe are undergoing fundamental change.

In Britain the decision of a group of Tory MPs to back full withdrawal from the EU shows how the policies of Ukip and the BNP infect the Conservative Party. In Europe's capitals, right-wing leaders are openly critical of Cameron, and even the US senator John McCain, a possible Republican successor to George W Bush, has rebuked the Tory leader for snubbing links with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy.

So, for Labour, this is a moment to show the deep blue water that separates us from the Tory rejectionists.

At the same time, old rows are dying down. Entry to the euro is obviously not on the agenda for the foreseeable future (though when I made this point as Europe minister 18 months ago in an interview with this magazine, the Sun and Daily Mail behaved as if I had revealed a state secret). Similarly, the constitution is dead. Europe will need new arrangements by 2009 to take account of further enlargement, but intergovernmental agreement will be enough. The great constitutional moment envisaged by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing will not happen.

And there are signs of a lift-off for the European economy, starting in Spain, Ireland and some eastern and northern nations. Trade unions are writing a new text for social Europe that reflects the end of communism and the shift in production of goods and services away from the Continent - EU developments, it is clear, must reflect the interests of workers, or the white working class will turn to the politics of the far right.

It may be tempting to pull the national duvet over our heads and think only of America and the Far East as the new international frontiers for Britain, but we also need a coherent policy for the new Europe. If Labour does not shape one, other forces - hostile, or worse, indifferent to Europe - will.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and was minister for Europe, 2002-2005

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