Europe: Cook warns EU of sacrifices ahead

In remarks which appear calculated to bring Britain even closer to the European political mainstream, Mr Cook said existing members of the EU would have to sacrifice "narrow national interests" for the goal of "a return to the Europe our grandparents knew".

The alternative would be to allow the divisions of the last 40 years to fester; to replace the Iron Curtain with "a Velvet Curtain separating the haves from the have-nots". Addressing the Hungarian Parliament at the start of a visit to prepare for the launch next year of EU membership negotiations with Hungary, Poland the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovenia, the Foreign Secretary stressed the reforms which must be tackled by applicant states.

But equally, he said, the EU would have to confront its own problems, even if that entailed sacrifices. "Without reform, enlargement will remain beyond reach. And for reform to happen, we will all have to accept that our common interest in a modernised and expanded union outweighs narrow national interests".

The Foreign Secretary's remarks signal the Government's willingness to promote not only "Agenda 2000", the package of reforms to the EU's expensive agriculture and regional-development policies, but also a shake-up of the bloc's outdated decision-making machinery.

Limiting the size of the policy-steering Commission, and reweighting the votes of individual governments in the law-making Council of Ministers are both viewed as pre-conditions to enlargement but heads of government ducked them when they were negotiating the Treaty of Amsterdam last June.

Mr Cook's speech in Budapest was calculated to convey a message of complete and unequivocal British support for enlargement. The "prize" would be peace and stability but also the ability to tackle organised crime, drug- trafficking and pollution. It would also open up trade opportunities, with a free market stretching "from Budapest to Birmingham".

Enlargement to Eastern Europe was also the policy championed by the Conservatives, who saw widening Europe as an opportunity to stymie any further moves to federalism.

Mr Cook sought, however, to draw a clear distinction between the two approaches, stressing to Hungarian leaders that Britain under Labour stood a much better chance of being able to deliver. "As a result of having respect inside the European Union, we can be a more effective ally to our friends outside." The claim that Labour's "fresh start" with Britain's EU partners has been paying off in terms of influence appeared to have been successfully conveyed in Budapest. Gyula Horn, Hungary's Prime Minister, said he welcomed the new government's backing for enlargement "for its own sake and not merely to avoid deepening which was the attitude of its predecessor".

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