Labour Launches Charm Offensive Toward EU
Under the Conservatives, Britain had frosty relations with the European Union. The new Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, wants to change this.
LONDON — Britain, under its new Labour government, has made the first of a planned series of rapid-fire moves to mend its fences with Europe.
Prime Minister Tony Blair calculates that the Conservative Party's deep divisions over European policy were the main reason for its massive defeat in last week's general election.
His officials say he intends to heal wounds that he believes were inflicted on the European relationship by the outgoing government led by John Major.
Beginning in 1979, under the Conservative government headed by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Britain's relations with the European Union worsened. As Europe as a whole has moved toward greater economic integration, Mrs. Thatcher asserted an increasingly antifederal line toward the EU. Largely because of this stance, she was ousted as prime minister by her own party. John Major succeeded Thatcher as prime minister in 1990.
Mr. Major was initially pro-EU. But when Germany raised interest rates in 1992, it caused a Europe-wide economic tumble that hurt the value of Britain's currency. This strengthened the stance of the so-called Euroskeptics among the Conservatives. In addition, an EU-imposed ban on the sale of British beef in member countries last spring, due to health concerns, further strained Major's relations with the EU. It also led to deeper divisions with the Conservative Party over the EU.
To avoid similar splits within the ranks of the Labour Party, Mr. Blair is demanding total loyalty from his ministerial team across the entire policy spectrum. He has even appointed a senior minister to ensure discipline in government ranks and keep critical backbench Euroskeptics in line.
Blair dispatched Douglas Henderson, newly appointed minister for Europe, on a charm offensive to Brussels May 5, with a clear, upbeat message.
"We want to work with you as colleagues in a shared enterprise. It is time to draw a line under the recent past," Mr. Henderson told EU ministers long used to hearing British representatives hew to a stubborn, negative line. A senior German official commented on the changed British tone: "It was like a breath of oxygen in a stale room."
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook plans to visit Bonn and Paris to tell his German and French counterparts that the Labour government wants to banish the language of conflict from Britain's relations with the EU.
Henderson's mission was to clear the way for Britain to sign the EU's Social Chapter on workers' rights, which for five years the outgoing Conservative government had rejected.
One of Henderson's officials says Mr. Cook hopes to put Britain's signature on the Social Chapter "inside two months."
Blair plans also to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law in the early months of the new government. Underlining his determination that his huge House of Commons majority will not encourage dissension in government ranks, the new prime minister has appointed Peter Mandelson to the post of "minister without portfolio."
Mr. Mandelson masterminded Labour's election campaign and will operate from the Cabinet office with a specific mandate to ensure that domestic and foreign policies are tightly coordinated.
IN a preemptive strike against dissent within the Labour Party, he sent a memo May 3 and 4 to heads of government departments, demanding that all media interviews by ministers be first cleared by him.
"It is absolutely crucial that we show discipline and coherence in these early months," the memo said. "The first time any department announces anything which is different from our election manifesto, the press will come down on us like a ton of bricks - and rightly so."
European policy is especially sensitive for Labour. Not only does the new government want to project a positive approach on EU matters in the hope that it can work constructively with the other 14 members; it also has to curb Euroskeptics within its own parliamentary ranks who, under Mandelson's iron hand, remained silent during the election campaign.
Up to 70 Labour members of Parliament are thought to have Euroskeptical leanings, and without a check on their comments, the new government could begin to appear fragmented.
And as if to underline Labour's need for discipline, the Conservative Party, with its presence in Parliament now heavily reduced, is showing no sign of healing its own divisions over Europe. Rather, the race to succeed Major as party leader appears to be worsening divisions within the party.
At present, Cook and Henderson are preparing for next month's EU summit in the Netherlands, at which time the much thornier question of a single European currency will be tackled. The new government has yet to announce what line it will take on a single currency.
With a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons, Blair can virtually act with impunity on any issue he chooses. But regarding a single currency, many observers believe that he will not force the issue and will maintain the "wait-and-see" attitude he espoused while campaigning.
The Cook-Henderson foreign policy duo meanwhile have begun to foster an approach that a senior Foreign Ministry official said would be "a mix of cooperation and toughness at the negotiating table."