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More on that Byers story

Posted by Helen Saturday, July 03, 2004

Why should we bother, one might ask. After all, who is Stephen Byers? A former transport minister, who left under a cloud and after a great deal of “persuasion” by the media and public opinion. He, too, had to have his fingers prised off his portfolio one by one.

The fact is, that for some reason his statements are reported by all and sundry, that is Sky News, the BBC, the Financial Times, the Scotsman and so on, and so on. As the reports were a little confused about the time of his statement – past, present or future – they were clearly quoting his press release. Why? Is there really a dearth of news around? Or is it that all these organizations are desperate to produce some pro-EU, pro-Constitution, pro-yes vote comments and cannot find any?

Mr Byers has made or is about to make a speech in Yalta, which is very pleasant at this time of the year. I hope he will manage to get a bit of a holiday, particularly as he is unlikely to be paying for it. Did he, as my colleague asked, take his family with him?

Accroding to Interfax-Ukraine there is a “[t]wo-day European seminar New Strategy for Partnership, whose purpose is to discuss Ukraine's new status in the context of European Union enlargement, as well as the perspectives of further development of relations between Ukraine and Europe as equal partners.”

Presumably, that is what Mr Byers is attending, probably on behalf of the British Government. Is there nobody else we can send, apart from a disgraced former minister for transport? Clearly we do not think EU relationship with Ukraine is of sufficient importance. And, to be perfectly honest, can the EU and Ukraine be “equal” partners? On the other hand, as we have written in this blog before, Britain and other west European countries ought to think very seriously about the situation in the former Soviet republics, now somewhat messy independent states between Russia and the EU.

Well, Mr Byers is obviously not thinking about it. Perhaps, he cannot quite place Ukraine on the map. He is using the occasion to talk about the forthcoming referendum in Britain and, as the previous blog said, to point out that the yes campaign may well be unsuccessful because it is not presenting the case for Europe well enough.

At this point one might think Mr Byers would do just that: present a case for Europe. Alas, no such thing. Mr Byers thinks that the EU’s image must be cleaned up but also that there ought to be some changes in Brussels. There seems to be little distinction in his own mind between the two.

"To be in with a chance of winning the referendum in the UK, Brussels must change. It needs to be in touch with what people want and reflect their priorities," Mr Byers will say. "But perhaps above everything else, it has to recognise and act on the basis that cultural and political identity are firmly rooted in the nation state. For the Labour party, the lesson of the last few years is clear. You cannot win an argument over Europe unless you go out and make it . . . This is the time to be strong and confident in order to campaign and make the positive case."
So what is it Mr Byers and with him the entire yes campaign is saying? That Europe (I think they must win the European Union but are deliberately obfuscating the issue) is a good thing but is badly presented? Then why do they not present it better?

Or is he saying that there are a few problems with the EU but these can be easily solved by a few reforms? Then, perhaps, he should explain what it is that is right with the whole structure, in some detail, and how exactly it can be reformed. It is not enough to sigh that:

Pro-Europeans had to convince voters Europe was "not a conspiracy against the British people"and that voters regard the European Union as "bureaucratic, intrusive, inefficient and out of touch."
If you really want to make a “positive” case for Europe you should analyze why they regard it so, to what extent is that true, is the problem endemic or superficial and what can be done to change it. (Honestly, why don’t they ask me to write their speeches for them? I am sure I could do better than whoever Mr Byers employs.)

It is not, however, a good idea simply to dismiss those arguments as being meaningless and nonsensical, therefore not dangerous. They are dangerous through their vagueness and the warm feeling that suffuses them. The yes campaign will not argue on the details if they can help it, knowing that the details speak against them but knowing also that most people are bored by the subject. They will stick to well-meaning, seemingly reasonable generalities. Arguing with them will be like wading through treacle but that is what we shall have to do and what we shall have to combat.