Europe looks ahead to a Blair summit

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The Independent Online
European leaders are to invite Tony Blair to a mini-summit within days of a Labour victory in order to make urgent progress in negotiations on the new Amsterdam Treaty.

The European initiative means that, if elected, the Labour leader will have almost no breathing-space before he is forced to decide where his government stands on such controversial issues as reduction of the British veto.

The Dutch government, which holds the EU presidency, is anxious that if negotiations are not swiftly begun with Mr Blair, the treaty may not be ready for signature at the Amsterdam summit on 16 June.

Among those at the summit, to be hosted by Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister, would be heads of government and state, including Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, and Jacques Chirac, the French President. Dates from 2 May on are being canvassed, sources in the Hague said yesterday.

Mr Blair is understood to have let the Dutch know he favours an informal "get-to- know-you" gathering rather than a full-blown summit.

By attending a meeting so soon after election, the Labour leader knows he may run the risk of being ambushed into signing away powers before he is fully briefed on the complex details of the Amsterdam Treaty.

However, Dutch sources say they are not interested in meeting just for a chat. The presidency intends to schedule a "serious meeting" of heads of government "as soon as possible" after the election. "We don't have much time. With only six weeks, serious negotiations have to start very soon," said a Dutch official.

Other governments are also backing plans for a May meeting. "We would support any initiative that would accelerate the negotiations. Time is short," said a senior Elysee source in Paris. If a deal cannot be done at Amsterdam, plans have been laid for the signature to be delayed until Luxembourg assumes the presidency.

In a move calculated to ease the transition in the complex and far-reaching negotiations, Mr Blair intends to keep Sir Stephen Wall, the present British permanent representative to Brussels, as his chief negotiator in the Amsterdam Treaty talks. There had been speculation that Sir Stephen would face the axe under Labour. He was an aide to Baroness Thatcher and fought in the front line of the present government's "beef war", and thus might be viewed to have been tainted by association with Tory European policy.

However, he has been assured his job is secure. An accomplished diplomat, his intimate knowledge of the negotiations and his cool head under pressure are likely to prove invaluable to Mr Blair and Robin Cook, the shadow foreign secretary, should they find themselves suddenly catapulted into the Amsterdam hot- seat.

As the British election campaign gets under way, European leaders are being careful not to provide fuel for Euro-sceptics.

However, privately all other European governments say they are cautiously optimistic that a Labour government would show greater willingness to make concessions on Europe than the present government.

In particular, other Europeans want Labour to agree to greater qualified majority voting and a "flexibility" clause which could allow a hard core of countries to pool powers at faster speeds than others.

British concessions will also be sought on greater power- sharing in areas of race and immigration, and foreign policy. Labour has already said it will sign up to the Social Chapter.

However, most European diplomats accept that, while Mr Blair's tone on the EU is more positive, he is likely to refuse any radical new power- sharing proposals, and is certain to oppose plans for ending border controls and building a multi-speed Europe with as much vehemence as the Conservatives.

As preparations for Amsterdam continue apace, the Dutch presidency is to present draft texts at a meeting in Rome next week, offering new proposals on majority voting, powers for the European parliament and allocation of commissioners.

Conservative members of the European Parliament have warned John Major against hardening Britain's stance on Europe because of "dubiously valid electoral considerations", writes Fran Abrams.

A report by the deputy chief whip of the group, Brendan Donnelly, hinted that the Prime Minister would damage Britain's interests by taking a more Euro-sceptic line.