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Brits seek to influence Europe

Gavin Hewitt | 15:30 UK time, Thursday, 1 July 2010

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague delivers his foreign policy speech, 1 Jul 10"Say No to" is always an easy form of campaigning. "Say No to the euro" and everyone knows instantly what you're about. "Say No to bull-fighting" and you don't need to explain. You've made your point. Quite a few voters in the UK hoped a Conservative government would say "Say No to Brussels". Once in power, or so it was imagined, the Tories would block, stonewall, and fight to take back powers from Brussels.

It was always a caricature and, in any event, the reality of coalition life has tempered instincts. What is emerging is a much more subtle approach to European policy by the new government in Westminster. Instead of shouting "no" from the sidelines the government promises to engage - and engage actively.

Where once the temptation would have been to enjoy the troubles of the euro, now in power the government wishes the single currency well as long as the British are not part of it (and as long as UK funds don't go towards bailing it out).

Some in the Tory ranks favour life outside the EU. The new government won't give that idea the time of day; Britain's economic future is tied closely to the EU. As for retrieving power from the sticky fingers of the bureaucrats in Brussels, that idea has been quietly shelved.

Today the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, disclosed more of his strategy in a major speech. Britain would not just be an active player in Europe - he wants more Brits inside the Berlaymont building, influencing the European Commission.

The Foreign Office's researchers have discovered that UK representation in Brussels is declining. Since 2007 UK officials at director level within the EU have fallen by one third. The UK has 12% of the EU's population but only 1.8% of staff in what they call "entry-level " positions within the Commission.

(Incidentally, those figures are described as "plain wrong" by Richard Howitt, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman in the European Parliament. He insists that there are 1,300 Brits in service and that if you take all grades across the EU we are in sixth place when it comes to representation.)

No doubt the figures can be argued over, but William Hague accuses the Labour government of failing to promote the national interest. "It is mystifying to us," he said, "that the previous government failed to give due weight to the expansion of British influence in the EU". He goes on: "so the idea that the last government was serious about advancing Britain's influence in Europe turns out to be an unsustainable fiction".

Regardless of the past, William Hague's plan will be controversial. Bureaucrats in Brussels are encouraged to shed their national clothes. Not all do of course. But the foreign secretary clearly envisages a cadre of UK officials who will work from the inside, confronting unnecessary red tape and working for a British agenda.

On many levels the institutions work against that, but the Conservatives see an opportunity in the current crisis. There are plenty of European officials - and some have gone on record - who see trouble in the eurozone as an opening to pursue their political goals and integrate further. But some of the old certainty and swagger has gone. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote, "no, the real story behind the euro-mess lies not in the profligacy of politicians but in the arrogance of elites specifically, the policy elites who pushed Europe into adopting a single currency well before the continent was ready for such an experiment". Now there are plenty of EU officials who lack a rear-view mirror, but there are real debates taking place about the future direction of the EU.

The era of austerity will inevitably challenge Europe's social model. As countries agonise over cutting national budgets attention will turn to the EU's budget. Some will insist EU institutions cannot be immune. It will be an opportunity for London to have a view and to find allies.

The key to Europe's future lies in finding economic growth. Everything depends on it. With expanding economies the debt mountains subside. The unemployment lines that snake across Europe get shorter. Social programmes are maintained. And again this is where the Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition sees opportunity. They believe the key to growth lies in less regulation, expanding the single market and reducing trade barriers.

So the Tories believe that in uncertain times they will find allies out there for their visions, particularly from some of the smaller countries, who William Hague believes were neglected by Labour. As I have said before, the new British government will be pragmatic in its approach to Europe, being co-operative when it can be and choosing carefully the moments it fights for what it sees as the national interest. But they don't want to be outsiders; they have chosen to pursue their vision by playing the Brussels system. That was the message from today.


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