EU belongs to the people, says Cook

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The Independent Online
Robin Cook today sets out the agenda for Britain's presidency of the European Union which starts on 1 January. As Rupert Cornwell explains, a key theme will be making Europe more understandable, more accountable, and more relevant to its citizens.

"Britain has a mission as president to give Europe back to the people," Mr Cook will declare in a keynote speech to the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin - and jobs, crime, and the environment are just three areas in which the Foreign Secretary believes that the EU can and must become a real factor in the daily lives of ordinary people.

Ever since Mr Blair's debut on the European stage last May, the Government has complained that Europe and its institutions were insufficiently democratic, over-preoccupied with arcane issues like monetary union, and dangerously out of touch with issues that really exercised public opinion.

Like Gordon Brown a week ago, Mr Cook will make unequivocally clear that while Britain will not be among the euro founders, the Government aims to bring sterling into the single currency as soon as possible and will do everything to facilitate the EMU launch during its presidency, during which crucial decisions such as the setting of entry exchange rates will be taken.

The message may not be new, but is no less important for that - especially coming from a senior Cabinet minister generally seen as being less persuaded of the single currency's virtues than the Chancellor.

If Britain is to play the "leading role" in Europe to which the Blair government aspires, Labour must convince its partners of its sincerity in wanting to sign up to the euro. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's readiness to give even a non-member Britain a seat on the board of the future European central bank may suggest the strategy is already paying off, but other countries have still to be convinced.

Britain also argues that EMU will be much more easily sold to sceptical publics (including Germany, where a clear majority does not want to surrender the Deutschemark), if Europe can show itself capable of bringing tangible economic benefits, notably more jobs.

A first initiative is this month's employment summit in Luxembourg, whose conclusions will be fleshed out during the UK presidency. Mr Cook is also promising a stepped up EU campaign against crime and drug trafficking, and more forceful European policies on issues like atmospheric pollution and global warming.

The other overarching theme will be EU enlargement, of which the Foreign Secretary will again today spell out Britain's abiding support.

The biggest test of Mr Cook's diplomatic skills, however, will be preventing the worsening dispute between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus from poisoning the entire enlargement process.