27/08/2002

Foreign Secretary lauds EU 'engagement' during Belfast visit

In what will be interpreted as the start of the campaign proper for the euro referendum, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited Northern Ireland this afternoon on the first part of a UK-wide tour to promote the benefits of EU membership.

The Foreign Secretary will meet with the First and Deputy First Ministers, business leaders and public representatives during his half-day trip to the Province.

The tour had been billed as part of the government’s move to argue the case for British "engagement" in Europe, but will be seen as a hearts and minds roadshow for the single currency from a Cabinet minister who is known to be an enthusiastic convert to the euro – like his deputy Peter Hain.

The Foreign Secretary spent the morning in Edinburgh, where he discussed taking devolution in the UK as a model for bringing the institutions of the EU closer to the public. During his visit, he called for a ‘Subsidiarity Watchdog’ and a European constitution to define the roles and jurisdiction of member states.

Mr Straw said he envisaged a constitution which "enshrines a simple set of principles of what the EU is for and how it can add value". However, he qualified the codified European superstructure as assuming a subordinated role to national governments which will "remain the primary source of political legitimacy".

The watchdog proposal, he said, should comprise MPs from all member states and have the powers to monitor what he termed loosely as "unjustified" EU legislation.

The euro debate has receded of late as Parliament is in recess, but Mr Straw's tour brings the debate back into the spotlight.

The government has stressed that for the UK to enter the single currency, five economic tests – convergence; flexibility; investment; financial services; and employment and growth – must be met. If those are met, a referendum will follow.

However, the government has signalled that it is in favour of the euro and it is now a question of the timing of the referendum, rather than stricture of the economic tests.

The Foreign Office claim that EU membership has brought Northern Ireland "greater security with more jobs, prosperity and trade". It also says that 22,000 jobs in Northern Ireland depend on trade with other EU countries and Northern Ireland has attracted £3.2 billion of foreign investment as part of the EU single market.

Currently, over half of the UK's trade is with the eurozone, affecting some 3 million jobs.

(GMcG)

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