Election ;97: The challenges facing Britain's new Labour government

European clock is ticking away at double time
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Europe has been waiting patiently for Tony Blair. But now that the new Prime Minister is in office, he will find that the European clock is ticking to a breathtakingly fast timetable.

Mr Blair has no time at all in which to set out his strategy on European reform, and economic and monetary union.

A meeting on European Union reform in Brussels next Monday will be the first attended by a minister from the new Government. The first meeting of European finance ministers comes the following week.

On 23 May Mr Blair will take part in a European summit of heads of government in the Netherlands. And on 17 June the Government must be ready to sign a new treaty on European reform at Amsterdam. Within the next six months Mr Blair must decide whether to take Britain into the single currency at the start on 1 January 1999.

The country is about to discover that there is no longer any time to "wait and see" on membership of the single currency. Under the terms of the Maastricht treaty, Britain must "notify" its European partners on whether it wants to be a member of the first wave of single-currency countries by the end of this year. Decisions on which countries can qualify to join will be taken by EU heads of government in early May next year. Mr Blair will, therefore, be under pressure to decide, probably by the early autumn, whether to call for a referendum on the issue, or decide to keep Britain out until a later stage.

While all these questions demand early decision, the Government must also start preparing immediately to take over the presidency of the EU, which Britain takes up for six months on 1 January next year.

Meetings with senior European leaders, including Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, and Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister, were already being scheduled yesterday for the next two weeks.

At Monday's Brussels meeting the Government will be expected to outline its position in the Amsterdam Treaty talks. Decisions on all major European reform issues have been on hold in Brussels, largely due to the uncertainty caused by the British election. But now the EU has less than six weeks to hammer out a compromise text.

In consultation with Robin Cook, the new Foreign Secretary, Mr Blair is to appoint a Foreign Office minister of state for Europe. Peter Mandelson, Mr Blair's election campaign manager, was said to be tipped for the job. Whoever takes this hot seat will no doubt spend the weekend in briefings with Foreign Office officials on some of the most complex issues facing Europe today. Also in Brussels on Monday will be Stephen Wall, Britain's permanent representative to the EU, and the man who has presented the Tory government's case in Brussels for nearly 18 months.

The British minister will face the severe challenge of demonstrating to other European leaders that Mr Blair's Government is, as it has declared, more positive towards Europe, without being seen to cave in to integrationist demands.

Among Britain's partners there will be great hopes that the new Government will on Monday set about swiftly unblocking numerous policy logjams on restructuring, caused by John Major's Government's opposition to any further integration.

Mr Blair's stand on such crucial questions as reducing the use of the veto, creating more power for the European Parliament and building a European policy on defence will be explored. His refusal to sign up to any new integration powers in areas such as justice, immigration and defence will be tested and his commitment to signing up to the Social Chapter will also be explored.

Over the next few weeks numerous European Councils will take place in Brussels at which other new ministers will have their first chance to exercise power on the European stage.