Blair plans European affairs department

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The Independent Online
The Labour Party is considering creating a special government department to deal with Europe in an effort to show that, in government, it will be strong in its negotiations with its European partners.

The main purpose of the department would be to liaise and negotiate with Brussels, ensuring that Britain has a much better relationship with the European Union than the present government. The minister in charge would be expected to play a major role in all Britain's dealings with Europe.

The Foreign Office which is responsible currently for dealing with the EU has frequently been criticised for failing to alert ministers to what is happening in Brussels and for its poor negotiation skills. A new set- up, with many new civil servants, would also help remove the resentment felt in Brussels about the British attitude towards the EU.

The plan for a department of European affairs is currently being worked on in Tony Blair's office by his chief-of-staff, Jonathan Powell. While there is a strong logic to the plan, it is bound to be controversial because it will split the Foreign Office and make the job of Foreign Secretary, earmarked for Robin Cook, the main standard-bearer for the Left, much less important than in the current set-up. A senior Labour source said: "They are thinking about it, but they might well be wise to leave well alone. Robin, who has being doing all the preparatory work on the Inter- Governmental Conference [due to start at the end of May] would be furious if the role is taken away from him." Without Europe and with the Cold War now ended, the job of Foreign Secretary would be little more than a "glorified standard-bearer", the source added.

Any radical shake-up would be resisted within Whitehall, especially if it involved the partial dismemberment of the prestigious Foreign Office. However, one civil service source said: "The FO really deserves to be shaken up. It has performed really badly on the Europe issue and does not know how to deal with Brussels which treats them with contempt."

The idea also has unfortunate associations with the ill-fated department of economic affairs which was created in 1964 as an attempt to develop economic policy away from the constraints of the Treasury but never succeeded in posing a serious challenge and it was eventually scraped.

However, the advantage for Mr Blair is that it would create an extra key cabinet post with no present shadow incumbent and therefore it could be offered to his loyal campaign manager and strategist, Peter Mandelson, the MP for Hartlepool.

Another possible candidate is George Robertson, the current shadow Scottish Secretary, who is thought to have done the Europe job well before taking up his current post.