Cook shuns the great Euro love-in

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The Independent Online
PETER MANDELSON had dinner at the German embassy shortly after he told the world that Britain would join the European single currency "when" not "if" the conditions were right. "I have now learned the definition of a gaffe," he said in his after-dinner speech. "It is something you weren't supposed to say but really believe in."

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has never made a secret of his staunchly pro-European instincts. The running joke in Whitehall is that he now spends more time in Brussels than Robin Cook. As the Government has edged closer and closer to Europe in recent months, Mr Mandelson has been a vocal participant in all the discussions. But, five weeks before the biggest event in Europe for decades - the introduction of the euro - the player surprisingly conspicuous by his absence has been the Foreign Secretary. "He hasn't really got involved in the European debate," one government insider said. "He's more interested in other things."

Other ministers have been rushing to take advantage of the new centre- left dominance in Europe. Mr Mandelson has been teamed up with Bodo Hombach in an unprecedented Anglo-German ministerial committee to work up joint "Third Way" policies. Gordon Brown helped to draft the centre-left tract The New European Way. Now the Chancellor is writing a pamphlet for the Centre for European Reform on the future of economics in Europe.

George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence and another long-standing Europhile, has done much of the work on Mr Blair's proposal for a common European defence capability. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is discussing joint policing initiatives with the Prime Minister.

But Mr Cook, the man in charge of Britain's relations with other countries, has done little, in public at least, to get involved in the debate. He has been vocal about Iraq, Sudan and Chile - "macho crisis situations," one adviser said - but he has said very little about Europe, apart from proposing that there should be more co-operation between the Westminster and European parliaments.

For years, Robin Cook has been one of the most Euro-sceptic members of Labour's high command. It is possible that he privately disapproves of the blooming love affair with Europe, or that he has been sidelined by his colleagues because they fear he disagrees. But insiders insist there is nothing so calculated about his silence. "He hasn't been sidelined," one adviser said, "but he doesn't appear to display any great interest in the future of Europe - it's a vacuum." Aides explain that Mr Cook sees no need to get involved in the controversial debate on the single currency as this is a Treasury matter. "He's not an evangelical gut pro-European like Peter Mandelson, but he's not a Eurosceptic. Compared to the Tories he's incredibly pro-European - he's just a bit more old fashioned than some in the party," one Whitehall insider said.

To some extent the European agenda has been taken out of Mr Cook's hands. Much of the policy work is done in the European Secretariat, based in the Cabinet Office, under Brian Bender. A new high powered inter-departmental group on Europe - involving officials from Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office - met for the first time in the summer. The Foreign Policy Centre, a think tank set up earlier this year by Mr Cook, is to be relaunched under the directorship of Mark Leonard, a committed pro-European.

Tony Blair wants to take the initiative himself - as part of his determination to "lead in Europe". He has told friends that Britain must not become sidelined again after the "progress" of the country's presidency of the EU. Earlier in the autumn, he sent out a personal memo to all members of the Cabinet asking them to make contact with their European counterparts. In particular, they were instructed at one cabinet meeting, to woo their opposite numbers in Germany.

In the summer Downing Street - not the Foreign Office - commissioned Robert Cooper, a high-flying diplomat, to draft a paper "thinking the unthinkable" on Europe policy. He presented a series of proposals to the Prime Minister which were so radical they raised several grey eyebrows in the corridors of power. Among the ideas floated were elected EU Commissioners and a common European defence capability. The first of these Mr Blair said was great but "ahead of its time" the second he bought and announced it to an EU heads of state summit.

Labour's new romance with Europe will come to a head next month when the Prime Minister attends a meeting in Vienna with his counterparts. Downing Street cites a poll in El Pais which found that Mr Blair was the best known and respected leader in Europe. It is not that Mr Cook is being left out of anything, it is just that Mr Blair sees the new special relationship as his personal baby.