Odd couple set out on Blair's EU line (from The Times 12.02.99)

oddcouple.jpg (6352 bytes)

Keith Vaz, the Minister for Europe, and Eddie Izzard, the comedian,
arrive at Waterloo yesterday after taking their pro-EU campaign to passengers
Photograph: SIMON WALKER

PASSENGERS on the midday Eurostar from Paris yesterday were treated to a surprising double-act in the shape of the comedian Eddie Izzard and Keith Vaz, Her Majesty's Minister for Europe.

The odd couple wandered up and down the Waterloo-bound express and, amid the usual chatter of people using mobile telephones, buttonholed British passengers to proclaim the gospel of Europe on behalf of Tony Blair. Proceedings had begun at the Gare du Nord with a brief ceremony in which Mr Izzard, resplendent in stiletto-heeled boots and figure-hugging tunic, was dubbed a "European Champion" by the double-breasted minister.

Eccentric Britons can be seen all over Paris in Eurostar's advertising posters, so passers-by assumed this was just another publicity stunt on the theme of wacky London. As Mr Vaz handed a framed "champion" certificate to Mr Izzard, the man at the coffee stand guessed that the fuss was about a British pop star. "They always have hair that colour," he explained.

"I have discovered that Eddie and I have something in common," declared Mr Vaz, over the din of train announcements. "We were both born in Yemen, in Aden." But the minister's exposition of the benefits of European Union membership could not compete with the colourful version provided by Mr Izzard.

The EU was a fascinating "blueprint for the rest of the world" that offered the chance of the "most fantastically open government" for its future 800 million citizens, said Mr Izzard. The trouble was that "it is such a bloody confusing and boring organisation . . . There is no clear head . . . It is not as sexy as the American Revolution."

Traditional British dislike of continentals was just a superficial reflex, he said. "It's just like a drug. We have to shoot up with a bit of hatred." Mr Vaz, who, since being appointed to his job this autumn, has been initiated into the intricacies of Brussels, was pleased that Mr Izzard shared the Government's belief that Britain should be engaged in the EU. But, he emphasised, the comedian's views were his own.

Mr Izzard has been doing his communicating with the French in their own language in his stand-up act at a club in the Pigalle this week. He broke into passable French, impressing the British reporters who constituted the only audience for the "roadshow" at the station.

The comedian is the odd one out among the celebrities recruited by the Government for its campaign, which is touring the British regions. The rest of the "European Champions" are leading businessmen.

Yesterday a handful of protesters against British membership of the single currency dogged the progress of the Europhile pair. The anti-euro protesters said that they had followed the minister and comedian through the train as they spoke to passengers about the importance of EU membership and its impact on British jobs.

The protesters gave passengers Democracy Movement leaflets denouncing monetary union. At Waterloo, the protesters waved placards saying "Keep the Pound" and "Beware Euro lies".

A dozen Britain in Europe supporters had turned out to welcome Mr Izzard and Mr Vaz, and the protesters were soon in heated argument with them as Mr Vaz and Mr Izzard went off for press interviews.

Mr Vaz said that he was unconcerned by the protesters as most passengers to whom he had spoken supported EU membership. As for those who were opposed: "It's an issue of not having enough information. Once you put the facts to them and you tell them how many jobs are involved - a lot of trade depends on European Union membership, and when you tell them this, generally they are very supportive."

Mr Vaz will continue the "Your Britain, Your Europe" campaign this week by travelling by bus to Bristol, Bath, and Birmingham.

Mr Izzard said: "I see it as gaining the sovereignty of Europe rather than losing our own. And if we're not careful we are going to be behind. All the decisions will be made, so when we eventually get on board all the decisions will be made without us."

One passenger, Denis O'Brien, said that had he spoken twice to Mr Vaz and Mr Izzard and found them both charming. "Unfortunately, I don't think we need the euro to become better integrated with Europe. Currency should not be the issue here. But I support greater cultural, religious and philosophical ties with Europe," Mr O'Brien, who researches philosophy at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, said.

He said that he had tried to discuss with Mr Vaz the Ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus, who advocated greater European union, but added: "I don't think he understood what I was saying."