UK cabinet minister Geoff Hoon on reform of the EU and Czech membership

Geoff Hoon

Rob Cameron's guest on this week's One on One is British politician Geoff Hoon, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons in Tony Blair's Labour cabinet. Mr Hoon, former UK Defence Secretary, has just visited Prague at the invitation of Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek and the ruling Social Democrats, speaking to the party about how they can learn from the experiences of the British Labour Party, which has undergone great change in recent years. But his visit also comes at a time when the Prime Minister Blair tries to persuade new EU members to accept a deal on the EU's budget.

What brought you to Prague?

"Well, I received the Czech prime minister in London. We talked about the management role in government, getting legislation through, obviously with a tight majority here he was particularly interested in how we did that in the United Kingdom. He very generously invited me to come back, so I was delighted to take up his offer."

Does Labour see itself as something of a model for other Social Democratic parties across Europe, especially here in Central and Eastern Europe?

"Certainly we very strongly supported the accession of the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries into the European Union and into NATO, at my time as Secretary of State for Defence. So we have a very strong political relationship between the parties, but also government to government. So I think it's very important that the United Kingdom continues to work closely with our friends and partners in places like the Czech Republic."

But do you think Labour - which has so successfully rebranded itself - can serve as a role model for more old-fashioned left-wing parties in Europe?

"Well yesterday I met a large number of members of the Social Democrat group in parliament here, and it's interesting to talk about the kinds of challenges that all left-of-centre parties face. How you ensure that there is sufficient investment in health and education, in public services generally, whilst at the same time ensuring that those services are 21st-century standard, and that's all about putting in the right amount of money but also getting the right kind of reform. So the same kind of issues, interestingly, arose in my conversations yesterday as they would if we were having similar discussions in the House of Commons."

Prime Minister Tony Blair, photo: CTK
Prime Minister Tony Blair is currently in very difficult talks with leaders of countries in this region over the EU's budget. Do you think he will be able to clinch a deal over the next few days?

"It's important that I emphasise the government is keen to see a resolution of the EU budget. It's obviously a difficult issue, it affects different countries in different ways, and crucially we have to get the agreement of every single member state in the European Union. Obviously following enlargement, that is a more difficult task than it has ever been, but we're working hard to achieve that and obviously the prime minister is working particularly hard, travelling across Europe, seeing his counterparts, and establishing the basis of a deal."

That deal would though involve poorer EU countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland etc getting less money. Why should poorer countries get less from the EU?

"That's not strictly true. What it actually means, if you'll forgive me, is those countries getting more, getting more than they've had in the past. Obviously it will be important in relation to achieving a deal, that every country comes back a little off their ideal negotiating position, but perhaps that is the basis of a proper conclusion, where everybody comes off slightly dissatisfied, but nevertheless recognises that that is in the greater interest of the European Union and indeed crucially of the Czech Republic to get a deal."

Part of that deal would involve Britain giving up part of its rebate. Seeing as this rebate has been described as something of an anomaly, why should Britain continue to receive it?

Photo: European Commission
"The reason it is an anomaly is that it is the anomalous consequence of the way in which funding for the Common Agricultural Policy works, and works against net contributors like the United Kingdom. We have contributed more than we've received from the European Union really since we joined in 1973. It's therefore important that in discussing the rebate that it's not seen in isolation. It is part of the need to look as a whole at the way in which the European Union allocates its funding. We believe very strongly - and I know I received strong support for this when I discussed it with parliamentary colleagues in Prague - that we need to ensure that the European Union budget emphasises the priorities of investment for the future in the economy, in infrastructure, in the way in which the European Union operates in an increasingly global world where we face tough competition from the Far East, from India and China. And there was a broad recognition yesterday in my talks that actually that should be the priority for the European Union."

Britain is often seen as the champion of smaller EU countries, especially former Communist countries in this region. Do you think that is a role Britain is going to continue to play in the EU in future?

"Certainly I believe that it's important that we maintain our leading position with those countries that we have so strongly supported at the time of enlargement. We supported the Czech Republic's membership of NATO, and we strongly supported the Czech Republic's membership of the European Union. We believe that we have - partly for political reasons, but also for governmental reasons - a good and strong and enduring relationship with those countries and we intend to go on doing that. Part of the reason obviously why I'm here today."

Photo: European Commission
Britain is also one of the few EU countries to let in foreign workers from new member states. How has this experiment worked out?

"I believe that it is mutually beneficial, because in the end, most of the people ultimately do want to go back home. But they are taking advantage of an opportunity to work for a time in the United Kingdom, not least, even in my own constituency, in areas where there are shortages, and that means that the United Kingdom gets the benefit - perhaps for a short period - of those skills. Those people are then able to go back and transport back to Hungary or Poland some of the expertise that they will have developed in the United Kingdom, which is why it is mutually beneficial, and why the United Kingdom gets a great deal of credit for allowing that opportunity, part of the benefit that flows from membership of the European Union. And I've certainly heard in my time here a strong suggestion that the United Kingdom is acting on principle in perhaps a way that other countries are not."

Going back into history, Britain famously betrayed Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938, and there is still a lot of residual resentment, especially when you speak to older Czechs here. Do you think British foreign policy towards the Czech Republic today is driven by a sense of historical guilt over what happened sixty years ago?

"I don't believe so, because after those events of course we then did take the right decision, following the invasion of Poland. My father volunteered to serve in the Royal Air Force as a result of what happened there and many millions of British citizens working closely with people from what was then Czechoslovakia and now the Czech Republic served side by side, not least in the Royal Air Force. So it was something that I think was quickly overcome, in the recognition that we all work together to defeat a totalitarian and terrible regime."