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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 June, 2003, 07:51 GMT 08:51 UK
UK minister pushes new EU

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

Far from being the end of 1,000 years of British history, as sections of the British press claim, the new constitution for the European Union will be "the start of 100 years" of European peace and progress, says the British Minister for Europe, Denis MacShane.

Denis MacShane
MacShane was well known for his union militancy
To celebrate it, he is planning a 100-town tour of the UK as part of the government's new effort to be more openly pro-European.

Denis MacShane is by background and belief an example of how the Labour Party has changed from hostility to the European construction to enthusiasm for it. He is careful, though, not to get too far ahead of his party and public opinion. He feels no such constraints when attacking the Tories.

In an interview with BBC News Online before leaving for discussions on the treaty at the EU summit at Thessalonica - a city he remembers from a hitch-hiking trip many years ago - he took a swipe at British conservatives who oppose it.

"What I find worrying about the Tories is their hatred, contempt and condescension over Europe," he said.


"It is fair to say that their position is extreme. What they want would amount to withdrawal from the EU.

You can wrap yourself in a flag and stand aside, or you can take the prosperity which is on offer
Denis MacShane
"They act in the spirit of Neville Chamberlain, re-asserting isolationism and talking of faraway countries of which we know little. They are condemning themselves to being in opposition for ever."

"The saddest thing is to talk privately to members of their shadow cabinet who admit this. I also speak to other conservative parties in the EU and they say that relations with the British conservatives have become impossible because they are fundamentalists, not on the same planet.

"It is ironic that it used to be Labour which was hostile to the European Community. We fought a disastrous election on that platform in 1983. The Tories under Iain Duncan Smith have not learned from history."

He is a combative character and enjoys it. He upset the Spanish recently by bluntly pointing out that the talks on Gibraltar were getting nowhere. This comment, he says, earned him unusual murmurs of approval when he passed some Tories in the House of Commons tea room.

Dr MacShane - his doctorate is in international relations - is likely to come to greater prominence as the treaty negotiations move from the convention which has drafted a text to intergovernmental negotiations. These should be concluded by the time 10 new member states join in May next year.

Union militancy

His father was a Polish officer who fought the Germans in 1939, was wounded and then got to England where he became a commando. Denis MacShane was actually born Denis Matyjaszek and kept that name "without problems" through school and Oxford University.

The treaty will draw the anti-EU poison over the EU out of the British system
Denis MacShane
"It was the BBC which gently but firmly suggested that such a name might not be 'readily pronounced' in the Midlands when I joined as a trainee in Birmingham," he said.

The BBC was like that then. "I chose my mother's maiden name instead. Her family is originally from Donegal in north-east Ireland and settled in Glasgow where I was born."

He became well known among his BBC colleagues for his union militancy. He called for a strike once over allowances - something he does not like to be reminded of too much - and later went on to become president of the National Union of Journalists.

Under Mrs Thatcher, he said, he "went into exile", working for the International Metal Workers' Union in Geneva, credentials which helped him win a Labour seat in parliament in 1994.

No sovereignty issue

The draft text of the EU treaty represents, depending on your viewpoint, either a modest - and for federalists rather a disappointingly modest - modernisation or a highway to a superstate.

The most immediate issue, though, is not about its myriad clauses but whether there should be a referendum in Britain as there will be in some other member states.

"We have never held a referendum on a constitutional treaty under our parliamentary system," Dr MacShane said.

"We and independent observers do not consider that the treaty represents such a polling of sovereignty as did the Maastricht treaty and the Single European Act signed by Mrs Thatcher. Only extremists called for a referendum then and Iain Duncan Smith was among them."

He speaks "fluent French, useable German and passable Spanish" and is at ease with his European contacts. At a recent Foreign Office seminar on Europe, he chatted with the Polish ambassador Stanislaw Komorowski, though not in Polish.

He has, he told me, discussed with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder the exact German translation of "chairman", the word the British Government would prefer over "president" to describe the proposed new head of the European Council.

The German word is "vorsitzsender", so perhaps president will be used after all.

'Reclaiming independence'

He remembers his hitchhiking in Greece and compares the poor country he saw then with the progress Greece has made in the EU. "You can wrap yourself in a flag and stand aside," he said, "or you can take the prosperity which is on offer.

"Far from losing their national identity, these countries are reasserting it."

At the seminar he told the story of the central European minister who said to him that his country (Hungary) had not risen in rebellion against the Russians only to lose its independence in the EU. "For him, joining the EU was a way of reclaiming independence," he said.

One feels, though, he is being rather optimistic when he predicts: "The treaty will draw the anti-EU poison over the EU out of the British system."

We have, after all, not yet settled the issue of the single currency.

Prime Minister's Questions
21 May 03  |  Politics

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