Lord Patten Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Europe and the World: Conversation with The Right Honorable Lord Patten of Barnes, CH; Chancellor, Oxford University, former European Union Commissioner for External Affairs; January 30, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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European Union Commissioner of External Affairs

Lord Patten, welcome to Berkeley.

Nice to be here again.

What were your responsibilities as Commissioner for External Affairs of the European Union?

I had the job of coordinating all those aspects of commission policy, all those things where the member states have already given competence to the center. I had the responsibility of coordinating all of those and principally of running our development programs and our political cooperation programs. I played a role in trade, in bilateral relations with countries from China to Chile, and I spent most of my time dealing with neighborhood issues, dealing with the Balkans, our Mediterranean partners, Russia, the southern Caucasus countries, and so on.

How did your previous portfolios prepare you for this job?

I'd known already quite a lot about development issues because I had been Britain's development minister in the 1980s for three years, and I guess it's also fair to say that as Governor of Hong Kong I'd been involved with the sharp end of foreign policy. I think it's fair to say without bragging that I doubt whether anybody in British politics has had so much experience of dealing with international affairs development, Asia, the last colonial oppressor, the last colonial governor, so I had a lot of dealings with China and the European Commission.

Should we be surprised that a British conservative -- you were head of your party -- should undertake this job?

No, because I belong to the mainstream of the Conservative Party, which had always been pro-European for all my political youth, for all my political apprenticeship, and for my years as an MP and in office. The Conservative Party was the pro-European party in British politics. It was, on the whole, the Labour Party which had difficulty reconciling its aspirations with Britain's membership of the EU, and particularly reconciling rather traditional views about British sovereignty with membership of the EU.

Until '92, when I left British politics, or direct interest in British politics, that remained the case. And then during the process of ratifying in Parliament the Maastricht treaty, which John Major had negotiated very successfully, and partly as a result of Britain's exit from the European exchange rate mechanism, the chemistry of British politics changed considerably and the Conservative Party was torn apart by Europe. Winston Churchill once said that the problem about committing political suicide is that you live to regret it, and that is certainly what happened with the Conservative Party, I think.

Do you think the Party is correcting the error of its ways over time?

What it's started to do under a new leader is to correct at least part of what has gone wrong. As Mr. Blair has moved to the right, or moved his government (though probably not the Labour Party) to the right, because it's popular and sensible to do so, many conservatives thought that Conservatives themselves should move to the right in order to leave a space between themselves and Labour. What it meant was that we moved off the middle ground where you win and lose elections onto more extreme ground and detached ourselves from the common-sense majority in British politics. Now David Cameron, the new young leader of the Conservative Party, to his credit, is trying to re-establish the Conservative Party as a moderate party. He hasn't got around to Europe yet, and I think he will have more difficulty with that, both because he doesn't know very much about the subject and because there's been a sort of Pavlovian reaction in the Conservative Party for the last few years against anything European. It bears no relationship to what we would be obliged to do in office. But I think it will take Cameron rather longer to deal with that.

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