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Monday, October 12, 2009

don't get too comfortable

Chris Bryant has today been appointed Europe Minister, replacing Baroness Glenys Kinnock who spent a whole four months warming the seat for him. Bryant will be the 12th person to occupy this position in as many years - so much for continuity. With the endless staff switchovers in this portfolio the Government is starting to resemble one of those struggling football clubs that for one reason or another can't seem to hold on to a manager for more than a few months at a time.

Clearly, having an elected member of the House of Commons like Chris Bryant on the Europe job is far preferable to locking it away in the House of Lords where the Opposition can't have a proper pop at it and voters have no chance of holding it to account.

But this new appointment is by no means a net improvement on the current situation. Just to underline his seeming disregard for 'Europe' as an issue Gordon Brown has said that Bryant will remain a parliamentary under-secretary of state - the lowest ministerial rank in the government - meaning that the job, which was formerly held by a minister of state, has been downgraded. A Downing Street spokesman described the reshuffle as "housekeeping".

Once again this government shows just how out of touch it has became. Brown might not think Europe is important but the British public do - a YouGov poll from earlier this year showed that UK voters think that if a Conservative government is elected its second top priority should be to "Reduce the powers of the European Union and increase the powers of Britain’s Parliament."

In contrast, over on the other side of the benches Mark Francois, Bryant's shadow, sits in the Shadow Cabinet. Speaking at our fringe event at the party's conference last week, Francois welcomed the idea that the Minister for Europe should be a full Cabinet Minister, noting that under Labour, the role of Europe Minister had seemed to be “to tour the country, selling the EU to the British people”, rather than to fight the UK’s interests in Brussels.

Indeed the new appointment looks like a (fairly smart) political move from Brown, rather than one based on any long-term policy considerations. Replacing Kinnock in the Lords with Bryant in the Commons will give Brown a voice with which to attack the Tories over Europe and their new partners in the European Parliament - their favourite new topic. Judging by David Miliband's article in the Observer at the weekend the latter is set to be a major feature of Labour's campaign. Indeed Bryant has already written a similar article for a regional paper.

Bryant himself is a passionate EU advocate and will be an interesting addition to the debate - something which can't be said of many of his recent predecessors in this role (Flint, Murphy...)

But what does he actually stand for?

You won't get any clues from his website. The 'Policy' section is completely blank, having received far less attention than the 'photo gallery' where we get to see Bryant in his red speedos.

However, rarlier this year he told the Western Mail that, "I think the European Union has gone down some cul-de-sacs. The Common Agricultural Policy I would still like to see radically reformed, and we've got a bit obsessed with how many members of the Commission we each have."

We've heard lots about reforming the CAP from this government before and with very little to show for it, as we've argued before.

Bryant is in favour of maintaining the current system of EU regional spending, saying that "The question is whether repatriating large amounts of structural funds would open the door to a vast expansion of inappropriate state aid in the eastern bloc...we want to maintain a structural funds system that brings money not only to the poorest countries but to some of the richest countries."
This is worrying given the amount of money that is wasted funding dubious projects in some of the EU's richest countries. See here for just one example.

However, he has had some good ideas. For example he said that he is in favour of a specific parliamentary question time for EU matters, which would increase accountability and public awareness of EU decision-making. Thumbs up from us.

He has also called for the European Scrutiny Committee, which sifts through over a 1,000 EU documents a year, to meet in a more open and transparent way. And Bryant does seem to recognise the important role the EU plays in governing the UK, saying: "I do think that how we do the scrutiny of European business is absolutely essential to how we scrutinise the Government."

The question is whether he will able to take a breath from electioneering and attacking the Conservatives, or be around long enough to move beyond his recent predecessors and make any lasting mark in the job.

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