Neil Kinnock: EU Skeptic

It might be considered ironic that a former Leader of the British Labour Party and EU Commissioner for Transport would come to Vienna to discuss matters of cultural dialogue. But the irony is quickly put aside when one learns that Lord Neil Kinnock has, since 2004, been chair of the British Council. His high-profile visit, which included meetings with Austrian President Heinz Fischer and Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer underlines the importance of the British Council office in Vienna, has now been designated the operational headquarters for the Council’s activities in South Eastern Europe.

Despite a busy schedule, the former Labour Leader and EU Commissioner made time for a brief but illuminating discussion on cultural dialogue with students at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna on Jan. 17.

“Culture,” said Kinnock in his opening statement, “is the necessary lubricant to stability and security in the world. Cultural Relations and Cultural Diplomacy should destroy the boundaries between the cultures,” referring to the European integration process. Main emphasis of his talk was, of course, the looming question of widespread Euro-scepticism.

Kinnock criticized the “schizophrenia of politicians blaming the European Union for their own political failures and then voicing concerns of the rise of Euro-scepticism.”

“I am an enthusiastic European,” he said, and made a passionate appeal for efforts to combat this kind of negativism: “Half-engagement for Europe is not sufficient,” he said. “We cannot win the people’s trust by preaching, but by action.” The European Union needs to provide services to the people, he insisted, something politicians and the media have to address.

To win people’s trust, the EU needs to invest in scientific research, in the performing arts, in sports and the like. “These are services that people in Europe can pick up and see the advantage,” he said. “ ‘We don’t like the EU, but it works’ is what the European citizens might say. That’s where we need to get to.”

On the specifics, however, Kinnock was very much in line with the current British government’s position. He is against the Constitutional Treaty, whose revival is on the agenda of the German EU Presidency. The Constitution, he said, is “a kind of a telephone book that would make Europe more obscure.” He prefers a sort of “Constitution-Light” that would compile a set of “rules for institutions, voting rights and for legal matters.”

The audience at the Diplomatic Academy listened attentively. It is questionable whether European politicians will do the same.

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