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Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 12:23 GMT
Mister Europe

BBC News Online's Nyta Mann interviews Minister for Europe Keith Vaz.

When it comes to the euro, the battle for hearts and minds is currently being fought on the road. Both the government and, more recently, the Conservative Party have launched Euro-tours - or an anti-euro tours in Tory leader William Hague's case - on which they proselytise on the case for or against Europe.

"I'm flattered that William Hague has decided to imitate what we did last year in going round the country," says Minister for Europe Vaz. "The big difference of course is that we were on the bus for five days and we conducted 25 engagements."

Vaz insists that Hague's roadshow of one-off gigs cannot compare with the government's string of tour dates across the nation.

"Mine was an all-singing, all-dancing visit round the country where we sat and engaged with the British people in a positive way. I also engaged with those who did not support the campaign to explain membership to the British people."

William Hague on his anti-euro tour
"I had a number of people who started off supporting the kinds of things Mr Hague believes in, and at the end of the tour were ready to be convinced that we were taking the right path."

In fact, Vaz suggests the two should join forces and take their respective vehicles in convoy to the people of Britain. "I mean, I'm more than happy if he'd like me to come on his tour to join him. I'm more than happy if he wishes to denigrate the achievements of what we have achieved as a nation in Europe to put the other side. He only has to ask."

"I'm extending the olive branch through the good will of the BBC, and if [the Tories] wish to take me up on it, diary commitments permitting, I will be there with them."

Despite Vaz's insistence that his own tour has won people round to a more positive view of the European Union, the problem for the government is that all the evidence shows public opinion hardening against the union.

Indeed, recent polls show growing, albeit still in a minority, antipathy towards membership of the European Union itself.

Surely this shows the ineffectiveness of Labour's campaign to stress the benefits of EU membership? Perhaps even an illustration of how the decision to do just that, rather than concentrate on the case for the euro, may have backfired by putting the issue of the UK's very membership on the agenda?

"No, the Conservative Party has put this on the agenda," counters Vaz. "Until now we had a post-war consensus in which both the major parties in government supported a constructive engagement in the European Union."

"This is the party that has, according to John Maples" - the shadow foreign secretary sacked in Mr Hague's last reshuffle - "a majority who want to renegotiate. The logical conclusion of renegotiation is withdrawal. They put it on the agenda."

Whoever did so, it is a tune - one of the few - that appears to be working for Hague. Isn't the government simply losing this battle?

"No we're not, I think we're actually winning it and I'm so glad he's decided to do this because at last we can expose the real dodginess of their policy on Europe - which just so happens to be from the back of a lorry, which is good."

Never mind the polls

William Hague on his anti-euro tour
What evidence can Vaz point to for the claim to be winning the argument, then?

"The evidence is there, it is crystal clear." He recites figures the government has been using in its campaign: 3.5m jobs, 700,000 British businesses involved in European trade, eight of the UK's top 10 trading partners being EU members, 100,000 British citizens working in Europe. "That is the evidence. People vote with their feet."

But this isn't evidence so much as facts marshalled for the government's pro-European case. Would Vaz simply prefer not to mention the polls?

"I don't know how you can say that!" he laughs. "I prefer to talk about the people! I have met thousands on my roadshow. I went round the country, I lived with these people, I ate with them, I went into their pubs, I went into their high streets and I talked to them, and could not find more than two people who want to attack the European Union."

"I have no evidence from any source of people dissatisfied with our membership of the European Union. They want it to reform, of course they do, and that's why the government is in favour of the reform agenda. They do not want renegotiation."

So those polls he'd rather not talk about are just plain wrong?

"I can only rely on the evidence I've seen from the British people in their overwhelming numbers. That's what they said to me. The trouble with the opinion polls is actually you answer the question you're asked and it's the way you phrase the question."

What then of the disappointment expressed of late by the likes of Roy Jenkins, Ken Clarke and other pro-Europeans who hoped New Labour would take more of a lead on matters European, including the single currency?

Lord Jenkins: Disappointed by Labour's approach
"They have no reason to be disappointed with us," according to Vaz.

"There is a whole broad range of people in politics who believe as we believed that Britain's future remains in Europe, and they can put that case very articulately - they don't need us to do it. I think what they would like us to do is something different to what we're doing, and they're entitled to their views. There is absolutely no reason for them to criticise."

Hague 'damaging UK economy'

And although Vaz has happily invited himself along on William Hague's anti-euro Keep the Pound tour, he believes the Tory Party's Euro-scepticism is harming the UK.

"What the Tories are doing is they are damaging the British economy with this campaign. They're telling the rest of Europe 'Don't engage with us, don't trade with us, we don't want to be involved with you'. That is very dangerous."

When Vaz was appointed Minister for Europe last year, commentators noted that he came to the job free of any great Euro-baggage one way or the other. Does he think this may have been a key reason for giving him the position?

"All I can say is I've enjoyed immensely doing this job. It is, I believe, the best job in government outside the cabinet and what has been so good is to go out there and see the huge amount of good will that exists from our colleagues who like what Blair is saying."

"I mean, they all think they're Blair, from the left and the right."

'Haider no Blair'

Jorg Haider: Wants to join the Third Way
Do they really? Surely not French prime minister Lionel Jospin - Vaz laughs when the name is mentioned - who has made little secret of his antipathy towards the idea of being drawn into Blair's Third Way net?

And even Gerhard Schroeder, who was most keen to identify himself with Blair at one point, later thought it politic not to do so quite so enthusiastically after the joint New Labour-German Social Democrat "Neue Mitte" document sparked serious rebellion in his party and plummeting fortunes at the polls.

In fact, embarrassingly for the government, the European politician recently most keen to associate himself with Blair has been Jorg Haider, leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party which has just joined the country's governing coalition.

"If Jorg Haider thinks he's Tony Blair then he needs his head examined," Vaz ripostes. "What I meant by what I said was that people on the left and on the right in Europe, not individual leaders, admire and respect what the prime minister has done."

Haider's electoral support in Austria brought about a serious clash of European ideals: democracy versus the support for minority rights for all citizens of Europe.

Here was a leader who had expressed sympathy and support for Hitler's Nazis and their policies, and whose political position in modern European politics was undeniably on the extreme right. And yet the voters had put his party in a position to join the government.

"Well, they've been democratically elected and the people of Austria have reacted in the way in which I expected them to in the last two weeks. They've gone and demonstrated," says Vaz.

He doesn't buy the argument that the robust response by key EU member states to the Freedom Party's poll electoral success may have boosted Haider's domestic support. "This view that if you have a general election tomorrow Haider's going to come back with a bigger majority - I think the people of Austria will think twice."

"If we'd said nothing, perhaps that was the case. But I think they know what the rest of Europe is saying because they are Europeans, they are a European country, and they understand."

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See also:
22 Feb 00 |  Business
Brown's euro timetable
21 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
3m jobs 'dependent on EU'
15 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Maples mars Hague's euro roadshow
15 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
The circus comes to town
14 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Tories launch currency roadshow
15 Feb 00 |  UK
Maples wreaks his revenge

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