Election '97: Leaders battle over strength in Europe

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The Independent Online
John Major and Tony Blair yesterday vied with reach other for the strength of their defence of the British national interest in Europe.

The Conservative leader said Monday's speech by Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, had vindicated his own warning of European ambition for deeper integration, and helped to establish a distinct dividing line between Labour and the Tories.

But the Labour leader asked: "Who do you want to represent you? The man who has failed or the man who can succeed?"

Mr Major said in a prepared statement to his daily election press conference: "I say no to handing more powers to Brussels in a new employment chapter. Mr Blair says yes. I say no to the extension of qualified majority voting. Mr Blair says yes. I say no to new powers for the European Parliament. Mr Blair says yes.

"On European control of foreign policy, I say no. Mr Blair says maybe, and means yes."

But Mr Blair said at his press conference: "The issue in this election campaign over Europe is very simple and it is this: who will best stand up for and fight for British needs?

"John Major, the man who appointed Jacques Santer, who gave us the beef war and the fiasco over BSE and can't even keep his own political party together in the course of an election campaign?

"Or me, the person who has transformed the Labour Party into the strongest, most professional, most disciplined fighting force in British politics." As for Mr Santer, the Labour leader said: "I disagree with a lot of what he said. Mr Santer represents the European Commission, if I am elected I will represent Britain."

But Sir Leon Brittan, the former Conservative Cabinet minister and a vice-president of the Commission, defended Mr Santer, saying that if the Euro-sceptics threw mud at the Commission they should not be surprised if people hit back.

"In the election a large number of very harsh things have been said about the Commission," he said.

"I think the Euro-sceptics have got to have slightly thicker skins and allow themselves to be criticised because they dish it out and it is time somebody answered back."

But one of the most remarkable statements of the day came from Mr Blair in the Sun newspaper, in which he said: "Tomorrow is St George's Day, the day when the English celebrate the pride we have in our nation."

He said: "The Conservatives are hopelessly divided on whether Europe is the modern day dragon. Michael Howard says it is a rampaging two-headed monster, set to breathe fire throughout our land and tear our country apart. Kenneth Clarke thinks it's like Puff the Magic Dragon - friendly, good-natured and there to help us."

The Labour leader went on: "We want a Britain strong in Europe, leading in Europe, building a Europe on Britain's terms ... St George did not slay a dragon so that England could follow the rest. He did it so that we could be strong, and ready to lead."