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Come on, you can sell us the euro better than that, Mr Blair

Article by Mark Leonard

September 15, 2006

The boot is on the other foot. Pro-Europeans sense an opportunity in the panicked excuses and ashen faces of the sceptics. Ever since the bloody battles over Maastricht in the early 1990s, this Right-wing cabal has tormented every pro-European from Ken Clarke to Peter Mandelson with impunity. Now, suddenly, they seem deflated.

William Hague’s failed attempt to turn the election into a referendum on the euro proved, as the pollsters have known for years, that saving the pound is only a dominant issue for a tiny minority of voters. More importantly, Europhiles have been buoyed by recent evidence showing the public mood moving in their direction. For a long time, people have thought British membership of the euro inevitable; new evidence shows a clear majority thinks it desirable at some point in the future.

But this sanguine mood will fade unless the Government speaks with a clearer voice on Europe. If it really is going to pull off the biggest turnaround in public opinion since the war, it must sell a popular vision of the EU before anyone will listen to its arguments about the euro. Tony Blair realised long ago that the referendum won’t be won on economics alone. Even if the electorate accepts that the euro will mean more jobs, lower mortgages and an end to trips to the bureau de change, they will never sign up if they think they will lose their independence.

He is right to believe that the only chance of turning public opinion around is to equate Europe with patriotism and the national interest: a referendum will be won only by changing the perception that the EU has an insatiable appetite for stripping powers from nation states. With his strong credentials as a scourge of Hampstead liberals, the new Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is well placed to argue the practical, patriotic case.

But too often the Government has given mixed messages. Its choice tactic to allay concerns has been to portray Europe as a vast stomping ground waiting to be reformed by British values and leadership. Ministers have often slipped into the trap of trumpeting a proud tally of crazy EU directives they have thwarted and boasting of British-inspired initiatives to inject Europe with transatlantic dynamism. In a recent speech, Mr Blair claimed to be leading the process of reform in Europe, moving it away from concentration on regulation, winning arguments against harmonising taxes.

This bellicose rhetoric might persuade people that Labour is defending our interests, but it also promotes the notion that, given free rein, the EU would turn Britain into a basket case. If British ministers never mention the EU without exhorting it to change, or use it as a convenient foil to highlight US economic success, then voters are entitled to ask why they should grant it sweeping economic powers. Of course, such grandstanding is understandable with a hostile press desperate to portray the Government as weak. But pro-Europeans should not allow their natural caution to blind them to the fact that a real opportunity now exists for positive vision.

The lazy caricature of a continent wedded to trade unionism, bloated state provision and sclerotic working practices exists only in the minds of Right-wing leader writers. Britain might have a record on job creation and inward investment that rivals the best in Europe, but comparative figures show that we lose five times as many days from strikes as France and twice as many as Germany; our spending on primary and secondary education languishes near the bottom of the EU league; our infant mortality rates are worse than the EU average; and the proportion of British 18-year-olds entering further and higher education is not just lower than most of the EU, but less than Croatia and Slovenia. Not all of the figures are this bad, but they underline the fact that instead of imploring the rest of Europe to be more like us, we should set out the success stories worth repeating.

The electorate is already a step ahead. Mori polling found that more Britons wanted to emulate the German than the US economy, even at the height of the Wall Street boom. This election showed the breadth of the coalition demanding the kind of social democracy that pervades Europe. Thatcherite neglect of our public infrastructure has come to haunt the Daily Telegraph-reading commuter classes as much as anyone else: when Blair pressed the flesh during the election campaign, it was bad public services rather than tax increases that caused memorable stand-offs. And although employment is at record levels, discontent with long hours in the office and a work/life balance that is out of kilter mean that there is a new hunger for government to offer something more than low mortgage rates.

A political programme that aims to have trains as reliable as France’s, schools as effective as Germany’s and industries as innovative as Finland’s won’t just capture the public imagination, it will also turn round the debate on the euro. Incorporating a vision of the European good life into domestic politics must be more effective than remaining stuck in the tramlines of the conventional Europe debate. Mr Blair has already set the precedent with his commitment to raising health spending to the EU average. Paradoxically, this might have done more to engage Britain with the EU than all his keynote speeches on European reform combined. The Government could extend this process to other areas of policy by encouraging the EU to publish league tables detailing our performance compared with that of other European countries on the economy and public services.

Mr Blair is the first prime minister to be comfortable describing Britain as a European power within a definitively European cultural heritage. Where Margaret Thatcher proselytises about a union of the English speaking world, Mr Blair talks of Edinburgh as a jewel of European civilisation and London as a great European city. But this Europhilia is safely contained in the past. It does not extend to arguing that other European countries have lessons for the UK here and now. None of this should replace the strong economic arguments for joining the euro, but the polls won’t shift until the Government finally destroys the argument that all our problems come from Europe and all the solutions come from the Anglo-Saxons.

Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre, an independent think-tank launched by the Prime Minister and Robin Cook in 1998

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