Hague’s actions on Europe not his words will show where he really stands

If we are to take something positive from William Hague's speech yesterday, it is that senior Conservatives seem to have got the message that Britain's role in the European Unioin is important. However, it has also exposed the emptiness of what the Cameron government has to offer on the international stage.

Our guest writer is Glenis Willmott MEP, Labour’s leader in the European Parliament

If we are to take something positive from William Hague’s speech yesterday, it is that senior Conservatives seem to have got the message that Britain’s role in the European Unioin is important. However, it has also exposed the emptiness of what the Cameron government has to offer on the international stage.

It is interesting to see Hague say that his government is determined “to give due weight to Britain’s membership of the EU and other multilateral institutions”; both Cameron and his foreign secretary’s approach to international affairs hasn’t had the isolationist attitude that many expected from their previously hard-line rhetoric.

That could be due to the presence of the Lib Dems, but it is more likely to be the pragmatism of government. But if that switch is reflected in the type of language being used, it isn’t so clear in the substance. Conservative ministers have taken the seals of office, but they are still acting like they sit on the opposition benches.

Hague’s speech, which was in essence an appeal to FCO mandarins and ambassadors, focused mostly on the last Labour government rather than big new ideas. Just look at the section of the speech that was released in advance to the media – it was an attempt to attack the previous administration for not having done enough to get Brits into the top jobs at the European Commission.

Putting to one side the appointment of Baroness Ashton as one of the EU’s top three officials, it is sad that this is all Hague has as his big story – particularly because he fails to offer any solutions that would increase British representation in the EU institutions.

Taking a closer look at the speech, the main thrust seems to be that the UK should downgrade its focus on France and Germany, focusing instead on the smaller EU countries. Once again, Hague sees this as an opportunity to take a swipe, saying that Labour “neglected to launch any new initiative to work with smaller nations”. The background to this is, of course, the fact the Conservative Party’s political family is now very much focused in central and eastern Europe.

It is true that Labour worked hard to have good relations with President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel, key players on the global stage whose countries represent more than 19 per cent of the UK’s export market, but to accuse the Labour government of neglecting other countries is unfair.

You don’t need gimmicks if you’ve got the relationships right in the first place and we have a proud record of engaging with colleagues from across all the EU member states and beyond. In the European Parliament we work as a group of over 180 MEPs from all of the EU’s 27 countries; meanwhile the Conservative’s international allies consist of 15 Poles, nine Czechs and a single politician from each of just five other countries. It is only natural that Hague hopes to focus his efforts away from those places where relationships have been allowed to crumble.

So what conclusions can we draw? So far, not many. Only when we get actions to match the talk can we really get a feel for the role this government sees for Britain in the world.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.