Brexit EU signposts

[This is the text of a speech given at the Royal Commonwealth Society on 24 October 2001 by Peter Hain who was, at the time, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Click here to read the entire speech published in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs in 2002.]

We are working to build our kind of Europe—a practical Europe, that delivers real things for real people: jobs; prosperity; cleaner air; safer cars; the right to live, work and study anywhere inside the EU. An accountable Europe, whose agenda is set by the democratically elected leaders of the member states. An open Europe, that consults its citizens and takes decisions with trans- parency. A comprehensible Europe, that uses language people can understand and procedures they can follow. A diverse Europe, that cherishes the differences between its member states. That empowers them all while respecting the national identity of each. A Europe that stands in a strong trans- atlantic alliance with the United States as it has so firmly over the past month. As it must also do in opening up trade, on conflict prevention, on a new deal for Africa, on humanitarian assistance and fighting world poverty. This is our kind of Europe. This is the Europe that our government is trying to build.

The current terrorist threat to Britain and the values we share with others across the world makes our kind of Europe more vital than ever.

The EU is looking for partners in this struggle: we are keen to find new ways to work with other members of the international community, not just the USA, to ensure we prevail.

Peace at home is the first condition of successful engagement abroad. Let us remember that peace in Europe is not an accident. It has happened because of the EU and NATO. NATO protected us against a Soviet threat, and now against new dangers.

The EU has made further war between the 15 European Union members an unthinkable impossibility. Enlarging the EU eastwards will spread this zone of peace and stability to Central and Eastern Europe. It will strengthen the EU’s ability to promote peace and stability across the world, in close collaboration with NATO, and together with other countries around Europe.

It is a travesty that all this is so often overlooked by the media. When reading the latest ‘Euromyth’ in the pages of certain newspapers, I am often reminded of the quotation from that great Labour figure, Aneurin Bevan, who said ‘I read the newspapers avidly—it is my one form of continuous fiction’. And indeed one of the problems we have with Europe in Britain is that public debate has been hampered by language and labels. It is debilitating for each British citizen trying to make sense of their own place in Europe’s future. It is debilitating for the Government trying to protect and advance British interests. And I suspect it is just as debilitating for our Commonwealth friends trying to make sense of the debate. Just as I am sure they find it as infuriating as I do to see the travesty of 21st century Commonwealth in the British media as ‘a relic of Empire’. That is patronizing and insulting nonsense: the Empire is long gone. And the Common- wealth is a unique bridge: between North and South, between East and West, between rich and poor.

It is time for us all to rise above caricatures. For rational debate, not knee-jerk argument. For information not propaganda.

Like Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, I am up for a robust debate on almost anything under the sun—including with those who disagree with our Govern- ment’s policy. We respect different views, sincerely held, about the direction of Europe or the Commonwealth. But we need a serious debate about what is really happening—not a debate trapped in a time-warp caricature of doughty Britons versus fiendish foreigners or still ruling the waves in our pith helmets!

On Europe, for people to see the real benefits of the European Union we in government need to cut through the jargon and the Eurospeak that makes it hard for them to do so.

The very low turnout right across Europe in the 1999 European elections showed the big gap between the EU and its citizens. The Irish referendum—to ratify the Nice Treaty on enlarging the EU—showed it too: turnout low, answer no. Significantly, the ‘No campaign’ ran on the slogan: ‘If you don’t know, vote no’.

Young people are instinctively pro-European. They travel to Paris just as easily as to London. They get by with the language and drink the lager. But ask them about the Council or the Commission or the Parliament and they do not want to know. They are not necessarily hostile, more that they are not engaged.

We need plain language, not Eurobabble. We need a new popular language if we are to reconnect the European Union to its citizens, to show that we are in fact talking about the things that really matter—jobs and prosperity, peace and security, social justice and the environment. And above all, let us have the facts and demolish the myths. Myths like the European ‘superstate’, which the Eurosceptics claim to see Britain being sucked into by those devious foreigners again.

Let us have some plain speaking here too. A ‘superstate’ would have an elected central government. A parliament with the power to tax and determine public spending. A standing army. A foreign policy independence of its con- stituent states. The power to declare war. The kind of relationship with the 43 nation states of Europe which the British government has with Wales, Scotland and England’s regions.

None of this exists today in the European Union and none of it could happen without the agreement of every member state. Britain does not want it. So we could veto it if we had to. But other European leaders do not want it either. More important still, the people of Europe do not want it.

I want Britain to be more confident—and get more real—about our ‘sovereignty’.

From the archives: Related articles:

1935: Great Britain and Europe

1978: Britain in Europe—and Europe in Britain

2013: The Commonwealth and Britain’s Turn to Europe, 1945–73

2018: Vince Cable: On Brexit’s “inflated expectations” and the Commonwealth’s “great value”