Peter Mandelson, the European external
trade minister

Sir David Frost: It is exactly 50 years this week since the Treaty of Rome was signed to establish what was then called the Common Market and is now named the European Union.

In the intervening half century Europe has widened and deepened in a way that was considered unstoppable. But now it all seems a trifle messier. 

A treaty setting up a European constitution was signed three years ago but then blocked by referenda in France and the Netherlands. Now that constitution sits in a sort of limbo, with no clear direction for the future of Europe.

Peter Mandelson, the European external trade commissioner, joins me to review this.

How much of the credit for 50 years of peace in Europe do you think goes to the Common Market, the European Union or was it more the nuclear deterrent?

Peter Mandelson: Well I think we signed war away when we created the European Community. I mean through steel and coal and through economic integration. We made war more and more unlikely and then impossible. I think that having done that then to provide this tremendous motivating force for the reunification of Europe as a whole, east and west, I mean that is a sort of double bounty.

At long last we have peace on our continent after many centuries of war and strife. But we also have our unity underpinned by values of democracy and freedom for the first time across the whole continent, so I think we have made some small contribution.

DF: Right, there is more than a small contribution but Jacques DeLore said recently that, unlike 50 years ago where Europe was united in the process of trying to bring together the reconciliation of Europe, there is no such over-arching theme for people to respond to today and that is one of the reasons why Europe may have to reinvent itself.

PM: Well Europe no longer needs to be, or should be, focused simply on Europe. I think that is where Jacques DeLore, great man that he is, is making a mistake. I think he now has to go global because the real challenges and issues that we face in Europe are not simply European issues and challenges. I mean ones of global competitiveness in the global economy in which we are seeking to compete, issues of global warming and climate change, economic migration, energy security, proliferation of nuclear weapons.

These are all global issues and what we are doing is leveraging our strength, our combined strength as a European Union in order to confront those issues and those challenges with continental sized strength and also finding continental sized partners with whom to work in the world. So the world I think has moved on since Jacques DeLore's time and I think that he needs to take a, if I may respectfully suggest, slightly broader view of Europe's role in the world.

DF: Is Europe in fact fit and well and healthy or is it in a bit of a mid-life crisis?

PM: I do not think it is in a mid-life crisis because I think that it is exercising the role and the responsibilities both in sustaining and strengthening the single market. It is, after all, the largest single economic space and trading bloc in the world and we are doing very well out of that. 

Our European companies are drawing strength. They are better able to compete in global markets as a result of the strength they get from the existence of the single market. And I think in other areas we are turning to new challenges and new priorities.

What we need to do though is to bring our rule book up-to-date and there we seem to have experienced more difficulty. We have grown in size from what were 15 members to 27. Yet our rule book has not changed to match. Now that was the point of the treaty that was proposed but defeated in referenda in France and the Netherlands as you said. We have got to find a new version of that and re-present it and I hope with better luck next time.

DF: I suppose in the mean time a two-tier Europe is looking to be inevitable really.

PM: No, I do not think you can make that assumption. I think those who feel that Europe is so big and diverse that there has to be an inner core and an outer perimeter are wrong for this reason. Each European Union member state is equal. They each have their member of the European Commission, as Britain has in me, they have a voting power that reflects their size and their weight.

All these things work in a reasonable way, although they could be improved. I think to think that we could have a sort of two speed Europe, an inner and outer, defeats the whole point and the purpose of leveraging our combined strength which we need as a 27-member-strong Union to have that weight and impact in the rest of the world.

DF: Would you like there to be more than 27 members? Would you like there to be 30 or 40? Or would that be too many? Would you stop somewhere?

PM: I do not want to draw an arbitrary line but when people ask that question what they sometimes mean is 'would you like to see Turkey in membership?' Because that is the country that has generated the most controversy.

I would be very happy to see Turkey, as long as Turkey continues reforming in the way that it is, guided and inspired very much by the prospect of becoming a member of the European Union. But Turkey is undertaking the same sort of political and social revolution that it did all those decades ago when it became the modern Turkey.

DF: What about what about Russia?

PM: Russia? Well I think we are more likely to see Russia anchoring itself in Europe, rediscovering its European vocation as I would like it to do and also finding its economy increasingly progressively integrated with that of the European single market.

I think that is a more likely prospect than becoming a formal member of the European Union and indeed, as its trade commissioner, I hope to embark on that very negotiation with Russia, with that view in mind.

DF: Angela Merkel says that her main priority is to reinstate the flag in constitution and Margaret Beckett says that is going to be an uphill struggle. Would you agree with Margaret about that?

PM: It depends what Chancellor Merkel is seeking to do. If she is seeking to simply re-present the same treaty that was previously rejected, I think that would be hard going because I do not see how you would justify not having a referendum again in France and the Netherlands, and I think it would be difficult to get a different answer.

But I think that we have to instead look to a version of the treaty which is suitable for the purpose that is required. I would like to see a an external relations personality, somebody who combines the weight of our member states with the tools and instruments of the commission. People call that a European foreign minister. I do not call that a European foreign minister but I call it a single personality who can represent and project what Europe is about and what we want in the world more effectively than the arrangements we have at the moment.

DF: Yeah so what is needed is a newer, almost a brand new document.

PM: Brand new document, but tailored to specific purposes without perhaps some of the grandiose constitutional language that some people objected to in the first version.

DF: Do you think, gazing into your crystal ball, that Britain will ever join the single currency or not now?

PM: I do not rule it out. I hope it will be the case because I think that we will benefit economically from that. And I also think that the European Euro zone, the single currency, will perform better with Britain taking up its place at the decision-making table, the ministerial table, that is associated with the single currency. I think we need it and they need us, but I would not put a date on it.

DF: Back here in Britain, a date has been put on the transfer of power from Tony Blair to his successor this year.

Are you still a member of the Labour party or did you have to give that up?

PM: No I am still a card carrying member of the Labour party, as I have been all my adult life.

DF: I know Gordon [Brown] said some time ago that he would prefer a contest, but that was months ago. Would you prefer a contest now or do you think it has got to the point where it should be quote 'a coronation'?

PM: Well, you know my preference is neither here nor there. In this sense I am only an individual party member. Do I think the party would benefit from a contest? Yes I do. Do I think whoever was elected would benefit from having a contest? Certainly.

I think the prospect of a coronation is off-putting to the public but you know you cannot sort of fabricate through some artificial manipulation, suddenly create a contest out of somewhere. It requires more than one person who wants the job. More than one serious person who wants the job and that remains to be seen. I think we will only know that when the prime minister steps down and that is not going to take place tomorrow.

DF: And in fact in terms of in terms of what comes next, what is the most important quality this prime minister who is in the wings at the moment needs?

PM: A very keen, modern sense of what is in Britain's national interest. And that includes by the way, being a full member of the European Union and exercising influence in the European Union. Why? Because that is how we multiply our national strength in Europe and in the world, through the organisation of the European Union. So I would like to see a strong commitment there. But people want to see their prime minister is somebody who takes their country and its interests seriously and, of paramount importance, over everything else. Of whichever party.

DF: Do you think that Andrew Turnbull was a bit tough on Gordon Brown talking about Stalinist ruthlessness and a cynical view of mankind and his colleagues and so on. Do you think that was a bit strong?

PM: Well it is slightly difficult for me to comment because I have been travelling out of the country all week and actually I did not read Andrew's comments in the newspaper in his interview.

Look he worked closely with Gordon Brown. He was his permanent secretary at the treasury. He expressed himself from his own experience as he saw it. It is not for to me to agree or disagree. I think one should regard them as the views of one man. On the other hand, he was an important man and therefore you cannot simply brush his views aside.

I think you should not necessarily judge Gordon Brown as a future prime minister, simply as how he has been or behaved as a chancellor. Because I think that were he to become prime minister, you know the office office maketh the man and I think that he is perfectly capable of seeing his responsibilities in a broader way and the need to perhaps operate more inclusively, reaching out more to people in the way that he organised his life as prime minister.

DF: Do you hope he will be the winner of this contest if there is one. I mean would you like him to be prime minister?

PM: Well that depends on the choice doesn't it. I mean you are presented with a choice, a number of individuals and you say who will be best. You cannot yet tell me who the field is going to be can you?

So you cannot really ask me the question.

DF: There may be an opponent out there, is it what you are saying, who is more qualified than Gordon Brown?

PM: It is possible. Everything is possible theoretically. And that is about as far as I am going to go in answering this line of questioning.

DF: Well one thing that is interesting is with Tony Blair having said he is going to step down by July, that means that because you are in Brussels for another two years you will be in office for two years after Tony, which is going to be quite an odd feeling because he is going to be advising you for a change?

PM: Yes he advises me now already actually because he is very strongly committed to the world trade talks in which I am engaged. They are very important for the world and it is very important that they are brought to a successful conclusion, not least for the developing countries who stand to gain the most from a successful round. So he is very committed to that and he gives me his advice from time to time and I suspect he will be around to do the same.

What I do not think he will be doing is sitting on his successor's shoulder and popping up all the time giving domestic advice about British politics. I think, knowing Tony Blair as I do, I would judge that that would be the last thing he would think was appropriate to do. So he will probably be more on the world stage hovering over me and giving me advice, then he is domestically sitting on his successor's shoulder.

DF: And could you, when that spell ends, ever see yourself re-entering British politics?

PM: I do not know. I would like, after my term is over in 2009, to continue to make a contribution to public life because that is what I have been doing all my life. So it would seem strange to stop. If I made a contribution in Britain it would be as a former European commissioner, who is able, I think, to make the case and to offer the rationale for strong support for the European Union in the 21st century, because I think we need it more than ever.

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