Meet Britain's Mr Europe

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Douglas Alexander is a minister who's going places. The UK's presidency of the EU is a chance to engage students in the debate on Europe, he tells Brendan O'Malley

Sitting amid the grandeur of the Foreign Office's ambassadors' waiting room, the sun sparkling off gilt-edged balustrades in the hallway, it's easy to understand why people feel nostalgia for Britain's imperial role.

But Douglas Alexander, the 37-year-old minister for Europe, has no time and little desire to dwell on the past. I meet him in his shirtsleeves in his office. Neat, pale- skinned and boyish, he looks like a young David Steel. His job entails flitting between continental capitals and his constituency near Glasgow, and he somehow manages to attend to his young family.

The British presidency of the European Union, which began in July, has catapulted him into the heart of government, led to him attending Cabinet meetings and given him a crucial role in shaping the debate over the direction of the EU following the French and Dutch rejection of the proposed constitution.

So, I ask him, is this a watershed or is the European project dead? "I think it was President Kennedy who once said that the Chinese word for crisis involves two characters, and one of them means opportunity. I would characterise the debate as being at a genuinely exciting moment of opportunity."

Alexander's mission is to help Europe move on and modernise. He wants to persuade fellow ministers around Europe to face up to global challenges - from countering the threat of Islamic extremists to the likely rise of China and India as economic competitors.

An eloquent solicitor and former speech writer for Gordon Brown, he is the son of a church minister and a doctor. Alexander won't yet be drawn on his personal vision of Europe's future, insisting merely that he is a "practical European" who recognises it is in Britain's interests to be a member.

He acknowledges that public opinion surveys reveal a serious information gap on how it works . He recalls his own experience as a pupil in Bishopton primary school, Renfrewshire.

"We were asked to undertake a project on what was then the European Community - and, if I remember correctly, there were only 11 members. My teacher, Miss Craig, clearly saw it as an important area of work. I'm sure she never imagined that one day one of her pupils would become minister for Europe.

"That illustrates the fact that, at whatever level and whatever age, having an understanding of Britain's place in the world - and the place that Europe plays within that - equips children for the world they will encounter tomorrow."

He would like to see more information on the EU's work available to schools. How that will be achieved is being discussed during the UK presidency.

So what would he say to those of us who ask what has Europe ever done for us?

"Europe has made an important contribution over the past 50 years in advancing prosperity, building peace and strengthening democracy. These remain the lodestars of European development. Too easily we forget the ruins that lay in the aftermath of World War II and how significant that achievement has been.

"If you look at how magnetic the appeal of European membership has been for those countries emerging from communist rule and seeking to develop democratic institutions, that makes a powerful case for the importance of Europe in the years to come."

But the way Europe pursues its goals has to change , he says. While the EU has developed the largest single market in the world, with 450 million consumers, it needs to look outwards to the challenges and opportunities of a "truly globalising economy". "In terms of peace, we also need to recognise that some of the most direct threats no longer lie within Europe's borders as they did 50 years ago.

He cites Turkey's bid for membership as an example of how setting conditions for entry to the EU leads countries to introduce democratic reforms and tolerance of minorities. "I think it's a progressive ideal to say that a secular democratic Islamic country can take its place within an enlarged EUI "But we also need to uphold the rigorous standards of entry, which can be a powerful motor for change. If you look at Turkey in recent months in terms of the changes in relation to the death penalty, you can already see progress."

We have to explain the importance of enlargement not just to those seeking membership but those within Europe worried about how an influx of 70 million Turkish Muslims would change European identity and bring its borders right up to Iraq, Iran and Syria, he says.

"Few would argue now that we are remote from the consequences of of what happens in the Islamic world. Already the EU is playing a constructive role as part of the Middle East peace process."

Within Britain itself, he says, the economic case for Europe is straightforward, because of the large number of jobs that rely on trade with EU members. But there are many other benefits too, from co-operation on fighting terrorism to the freedom to travel, study and work in Europe.

"It's too easily forgotten that people can step on a plane and travel to a European capital on low air fares now without dealing with customs, as was the case a few years ago. And the ease with which people can now study abroad and travel, which the EU has helped put in place, is a tremendous opportunity for the young people of Britain and the rest of Europe."

Alexander himself studied overseas, in Vancouver and Pennsylvannia.

Britain's contribution to Europe should not be underestimated. As a UN Security Council member, a leading Nato country and a member of the G8, Britain has a global reach which benefits the EU. For example, it was Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, who persuaded EU ministers to raise aid commitment to 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product, which led to the doubling of aid to Africa at this summer's G8 summit.

"I think the presidency of the G8, which we hold this year, makes my point.

When I joined the 200,000 people on the streets of Edinburgh on July 2, I saw the strength of public feeling in support of the Government's endeavours to have a pro-poor agenda for the underdeveloped world. I'm immensely proud of the work British politicians have taken forward in the G8, EU and UN to advance the interests of the developing world during our presidencies of the EU and G8."

Once described as "very young, very moderate and very sure of his soundbites", Alexander was minister for e-commerce and competitiveness in the Department for Trade and Industry at 33, and a Cabinet Office minister at 35 before becoming Britain's Mr Europe in May. But he accepts that a lot needs to be done to engage more young people with Europe.

"That's a challenge for politicians because the traditional case for Europe and its advocacy of peace, prosperity and democracy spoke powerfully to my parents' generation. They recognised the consequences of two world wars fought within Europe, the economic devastation and untold millions of lives lost.

"That's why it's important to explain the case for Europe in terms of the challenges we will face - whether it's addressing global poverty, climate change, or international terrorism."

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