Straw's `back EU' plea to UK

AS THE Conservatives launched their nationwide petition for a referendum on the draft EU constitution yesterday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw attempted tried to galvanise pro-European Britons out of their "crisis of complacency.

By Graham Dines

AS THE Conservatives launched their nationwide petition for a referendum on the draft EU constitution yesterday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw attempted tried to galvanise pro-European Britons out of their "crisis of complacency."

Leading Tories, trying to ignore the party's leadership crisis, went to Downing Street on Tuesday with a letter for Tony Blair, challenging him: "If you are so convinced that the proposed constitution will be good for the British people, then you will have no problem convincing them during a referendum.

"However, if it is because you fear losing a referendum on this issue, then you should not be going down the constitutional road against the wishes of the British people in the first place."

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The Tories yesterday launched a petition calling for a vote on the proposals and are confident of collecting more than a million signatures. Tony Blair and Jack Straw are unimpressed – but at least the Foreign Secretary seems to recognise that the only way to persuade the British people to be good Europeans is to engage them in a debate.

In a speech last night in Chester, he said the document would neither end 1,000 years of nationwide nor threaten the status of the Queen. He urged those who support British membership of the European Union to come out fighting against the anti brigade.

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"Everyone who believes in the EU must work harder to explain the benefits of membership and explode the myths. My purpose is to encourage those who support Britain's active participation in the European Union to respond to the anti-European assault by making the positive case for Europe. I believe there is a crisis of complacency among those who support Britain's EU membership.

"Those who believe in the EU – in politics, in business, in the media, indeed in all walks of life – need to work harder and speak louder to explain the benefits of membership by explaining in simple terms the reality behind the myths.

"The reality is that by working together as freely co-operating nations, the 25 member states create more jobs, do more business and make ourselves more secure than any of us could alone."

But the Foreign Secretary also warned pro-Europeans of the dangerous arguments of the "starry-eyed integrationists whose ideological fervour gives ammunition to the superstate conspiracy theorists."

So a week in politics dominated by the Prime Minister's health scare on Sunday, the shenanigans of the Ulster Unionists on Tuesday, and the saga of Tory intrigue and plotting on every other day, polarised as so often in the past over the Europe.

Even the Liberal Democrats managed to say something intelligent on the issue.

Deputy Leader Menzies Campbell could not understand "why the Government is so implacably set against a referendum. What have they to fear if they have confidence in their case?

"A referendum would allow not just for the endorsement of the new

constitutional arrangements for Europe, but also for the chance to

reinvigorate the support of the British people for the EU."

Neat thinking Mr Campbell – let the Tories have their national vote, the campaign for which would so enthuse the British people that they'd gleefully join Jack Straw's happy clappy band of evangelical Europeans and vote yes.

Mind you, I wouldn't put my mortgage on such an outcome just yet.

EURO MP Robert Sturdy has demanded that the British government makes up the £700million shortfall in compensation from the European Commission following the foot-and-mouth outbreak 30 months' ago.

Only £217m has been paid and the Commission is expected to cap payments at £250m, says Mr Sturdy, an East of England Tory MEP and the party's European spokesman for rural affairs.

The EU temporary committee on foot-and-mouth strongly condemned the UK government's "incompetence" during the crisis. "The British government should make up the shortfall – it is only fair to our farmers," says Mr Sturdy.

Meanwhile, MPs at Westminster have warned than an impending shortage of vets with farm animal experience could leave the UK vulnerable in dealing with a future major disease outbreak.

If no action is taken, the Government could find it difficult to put in place a prevention plan as part of its proposed animal welfare strategy, says the all-party Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

It will affect the delivery of Government strategies which aim to encourage veterinary surveillance for animal disease outbreaks and improve animal health and welfare standards.

The MPs warn the Government that it should be proactive in encouraging student vets to enter large animal practices and, if necessary, must intervene in the market to ensure that vets who deal with animals such as cows are adequately paid for the services they provide.

SUFFOLK Coastal Liberal Democrats have chosen Waveney councillor David Young as parliamentary candidate to try to unseat Tory John Gummer. Mr Young, who fought Waveney at the last election, has a tough task ahead – the Lib Dems were third in Coastal in 2001, polling just 18.2% of the vote.

WITH the exception of Gibraltar, our dwindling number of overseas territories are all but forgotten by the great British public. St Helena, an isolated outcrop in the middle of the South Atlantic, is a case in point – and Colchester Lib Dem MP Bob Russell is to hold talks with junior Foreign Office minister Gareth Thomas to discuss the colony's economic plight and declining population.

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