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We must modernise…

Posted by Richard Thursday, June 23, 2005

Polite applause and some jeers – so the report goes.

That was Blair in the EU parliament today, telling the MEPs what wonders he had in store for them when Britain assumes the presidency in one week's time. It was a more civil response than some had feared, taking only mild flak from UKIP's Nigel Farage who described him as a "Europhile mugged by reality".

For all that, there were no surprises in the speech, which started with the somewhat obvious point that, "Whatever else people disagree upon in Europe today, they at least agree on one point: Europe is in the midst of a profound debate about its future."

"The debate over Europe should not be conducted by trading insults or in terms of personality," said the Great Leader. "It should be an open and frank exchange of ideas." The issue was not between a "free market" Europe and a "social Europe," he declared.

And on went this self-proclaimed "passionate pro-European", to a background of claps and jeers. "This is a union of values, of solidarity between nations and people, of not just a common market in which we trade but a common political space in which we live as citizens," he warbled. "I believe in Europe as a political project. I believe in Europe with a strong and caring social dimension. I would never accept a Europe that was simply an economic market":

There is no division between the Europe necessary to succeed economically and social Europe. Political Europe and economic Europe do not live in separate rooms. The purpose of social Europe and economic Europe should be to sustain each other. The purpose of political Europe should be to promote the democratic and effective institutions to develop policy in these two spheres and across the board where we want and need to cooperate in our mutual interest. But the purpose of political leadership is to get the policies right for today's world.
It was time to give ourselves a reality check, said the Great Leader: "To receive the wake-up call. The people are blowing the trumpets round the city walls. Are we listening? Have we the political will to go out and meet them so that they regard our leadership as part of the solution not the problem?"

With that, he ventured on the vexed subject of the European Council, denying that he was not willing to compromise on the UK rebate; that he only raised CAP reform at the last minute; that he expected to renegotiate the CAP on Friday night: Not true, not a word of… lies, all lies – not quite his words, but you get the drift. What he reelly, reelly wanted to do was "modernise": modernise, I tell you, we must modernise. That’s what we must do, we must modernise.. modernise, I tell you, modernise...

Of course we need a social Europe, said the GL. But it must be a social Europe that works – i.e., not a social Europe? We must invest in knowledge, in skills, in active labour market policies, in science parks and innovation, in higher education, in urban regeneration, in help for small businesses. This is modern social policy, modern, I tell you. We must be modern. We must modernise…

Such a Europe - its economy in the process of being modernised, modernised, I tell you, its security enhanced by clear action within our borders and beyond - would be a confident Europe… a modern Europe. We must modernise, I tell you. This is moment of decision for Europe, he concluded: “The people of Europe are speaking to us. They are posing the questions. They are wanting our leadership. It is time we gave it to them." We must modernise….

Predictably, he was praised by his own Labour party (perhaps not so predictably) and gained lukewarm support from the Conservative group who are left somewhat floundering by a prime minister who has stolen their clothes (again).

The only sustained hectoring came from Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the Greens, who declared: "You want to change Europe? Welcome to the club, Tony Blair." He said Britain had defended the CAP in 2002, "ensuring that your dukes can continue to get subsidies from the CAP".

Ever one to hold a grudge, Cohn-Bendit also attacked the decision to go to war against Iraq and insisted that a modernised Europe had to be environmentally and socially sustainable. He added: "The gauntlet has been thrown down. Mr Blair, you must stop being a prime minister for the next six months - you have to be a minister with a vision for Europe and its environmental, social and economic problems."

It was for José Manuel Barroso, el commission presidente, then to put his oar in, blathering about "reconnecting with people". When will these people learn that they have yet to "connect" in the first place?

Anyhow, bidding for the order of the brown-nose, he proclaimed that this "reconnection" required a European programme of prosperity and solidarity. Mr Blair was a statesman whose presidency had raised high expectations. Said Barroso, "We must not get lost in a period of narrow introspection - action will win back trust." There he goes again – what did the EU ever have the "trust" of the people in the first place?

But it was not all sweetness and light. El presidente could not resist a dig at Blair's participation in the "one percent club", the group of six member states demanding that EU spending be pegged at 1 percent of gross national income - a recipe for "reducing Europe's ambitions", warned Mr Barroso, to the applause of the house.

He added: "We believe in Europe as a political project and I hope the British presidency will give an important push to a political Europe and a dynamic Europe." The only thing he didn’t say was, "We must modernise…".