Britain has long had an, at times, tense relationship with Europe but is strongly in favour of enlargement, taking in not only Romania and Bulgaria but Turkey too. Speaking to EuroNews just before the Labour party conference – billed as leader Tony Blair’s last – Europe Minister Geoff Hoon refused to follow up on comments urging the prime minister to resign before local elections next May.
EuroNews: There appears to have been a backlash in Britain to European enlargement given the large numbers of migrants from Eastern Europe. Does Britain plan to continue its open door policy if Bulgaria and Romania join next January?
Geoff Hoon: I hope that backlash is too strong an expression. I know there have been some uncomfortable headlines in the newspapers over a quiet summer period. The UK remains very strongly supportive of Romania and Bulgaria joining the EU. We have to look at the condition of the labour market here as every other country will have to do the same.
EuroNews: Is there any kind of reassurance you could offer to people who feel their employment prospects have been adversely affected by the numbers of migrants we have already seen?
Geoff Hoon: There’s been a large number of people coming to the UK from places like Poland for a limited period of time, not necessarily wanting to settle here but to live here, to work, to gain some experience and certainly to earn perhaps better wages than they could back home. There is no real suggestion that they’re necessarily affecting the ability of anyone from the UK settled here to secure employment. The issue is only the extent to which we might choose in the interests of our own labour market to control the in-flow of labour for a limited period, for a transitional period.
EuroNews: The EU opened accession talks with Turkey almost exactly a year ago. I understand the European Commission will release a critical progress report next month and there appears to be a growing hostility within Europe to Turkey’s membership. What’s the UK doing to counteract this?
Geoff Hoon: There’s still a great deal of enthusiasm within Turkey for membership of the EU. It’s important for Turkey obviously that it maintains its commitment to its obligations as a potential member of the Europen Union so a good deal of discussion and negotiation still to be gone through, obviously we want to see Turkey succeed but they have to suceed on the basis of the rules of the EU.
EuroNews: You mentioned there’s still a great deal of enthusiasm in Turkey for joining the EU. I understand they’re not as enthusiastic as they were a year ago. Why has this enthusiasm waned?
Geoff Hoon: I think there’s been some negative coverage in the Turkish newspapers about membership of the EU but I don’t detect in the meetings that I’ve had with senior members of the government any lack of enthusiasm, it does seem to me they still, as they’ve always done, see Turkey as a modern secular Western-facing state.
EuroNews: You’ve said that the EU has an image problem in Britain, how do you intend to improve the face of Europe?
Geoff Hoon: I think its important that we set out again, in some ways restate what the previous generation took for granted which is that Europe’s good for Britain and Britain’s actually very good for Europe. I think we need to show the day to day consequences of the EU, often it can seem rather remote, and actually in practical terms people here are more European than they have ever been in the sense that they work for companies that depend on a single market for their business, they travel abroad for holidays, and of course many, many people these days are buying property abroad.
EuroNews: I think it would be fair to say that Britain has an image problem within the EU, it’s perceived as eurosceptic, what are you doing to change this?
Geoff Hoon: I don’t actually find that. There is a recognition that perhaps our newspapers are sometimes a little strident on European issues but that actually we sit there, we’re not the most enthusiastic but we’re not the least enthusiastic either. I was a member of the European Parliament a long time ago when Britain really did have an image problem where Margaret Thatcher in particular was not seen as someone who had any interest in Europe at all. In contrast Tony Blair, the prime minister, has ensured that Britain’s voice is heard in Europe by positively engaging on the issues that matter in Europe and at the same time defending Britain’s national interests in the process.
EuroNews: Gordon Brown (the UK Finance Minister and probable next prime minister) recently spoke about promoting the concept of Britishness, how does this sit with developing a European identity?
Geoff Hoon: I don’t think the two are in any way mutually exclusive. I’ve always believed that it’s possible to be… I’m from Derby, from the East Midlands, I support Derby County when I go and watch football on a Saturday afternoon, that doesn’t stop me however from being English and supporting the English football team when they’re playing. We’ve got the Ryder Cup at the moment where in fact we will be supporting a European side. People are comfortable with multiple identities, it’s not a problem and we don’t need to make it into a problem, we don’t have to choose, we can be both.
EuroNews: There’s a feeling that Europe’s being pulled in two directions, the social model on one side – the French social model, and the more Anglo Saxon trends on the other, which direction do you feel it’s moving in?
Geoff Hoon: Clearly some countries put much a greater emphasis on government activity or the government having a say and controlling economic activity. We’ve chosen a different approach, we believe that it is the best interests of business to be able to take advantage of both a single market within Europe and also the opportunities that globalisation affords. Obviously, we believe that Europe needs to emulate that example and actually I think so does the European Commission and the approach of the European Commission on issues such as research and development, investment in new and future technologies I think is exactly consistent with the approach that we’ve taken in the UK.
EuroNews: Mr Hoon, thank you very much,
Thank you very much.