European leaders smitten by Blairmania

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tony Blair yesterday found a "new Europe" change of gear and direction at his first summit on the future of the European Union, with other heads of government welcoming the fresh approach of the new British Prime Minister.

After a one-day meeting of EU leaders in the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk, Mr Blair said European leaders had responded to him, after18 years of Thatcherite handbagging and John Major's sulks, "a bit like the British electorate ..."

On the beaches and in the hotel, "Blairmania" was in full flow yesterday. All day long effusive metaphors tripped off the tongues of European leaders who lined up to praise the Prime Minister. "Some of the fog is being blown away from the channel", declared Jose-Maria Gil-Robles, President of the European Parliament.

"For Europe, the Labour Party victory in Britain is like the moment the ice melts," Goran Persson of Sweden said.

Before lunch they all stood together in the Blairite glow for the "family photograph". But sharing the limelight was not good enough for many of the summiteers, who wanted to take home a more private, more personal, souvenir.

In the first-floor dining room of the Huis ter Duin (House on the Dunes) hotel, leaders grabbed a photographer and queued up for their very own private snap, standing alongside Mr Blair.

Seasoned British officials, who have seen prime ministers come and go, said they had never seen anything like the scenes in the corridors and meeting rooms at the Noordwijk summit. "Its so nice to be popular for once," said one.

Mr Blair said after the summit that it was no good "sitting there and resisting whatever everyone else does". He would be rigorous in his defence of British interests but constructive in pursuit of an agenda for the future. "We want a Europe that works - works in our interest, but works." And that message, he said, had been welcomed. It meant paying less attention to institutional structures and a refocus on things that matter to people - such as jobs and competition.

Repeatedly emphasising that, unlike John Major he came in friendship - "seeking dialogue, not war ... solutions, not confrontation ... progress, not stagnation" - Mr Blair said he wanted a more engaged and constructive position.

But in talks with Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, a separate session with socialist leaders, and in the full summit, Mr Blair returned again and again and again to the need to promote job creation through labour market flexibility. He warned Mr Santer: "There will be serious political difficulties in the United Kingdom if the British signature on the social chapter leads to further proposals for social regulation. We have strong views about that, and we attach very high priority to the promotion of job creation, competitiveness and labour market flexibility."

Mr Blair told a post-summit press conference last night that after a full day of talks he had found no "appetite" amongst other leaders for any additional "great rafts of legislation" under the social chapter.

All the way through the talks, he said, there had been "very great recognition", of the need for labour markets to be flexible and adaptable.

After a meeting with other socialist leaders, one of Mr Blair's colleagues said: "The view came across very strongly, right across the board, that jobs is an issue they should be addressing far more actively than they have in the past.

"He senses ... that there is a desire for a change of gear and a change of direction, and he is perfectly happy to play a leading role in that."

But in the weeks to come before the full-scale two-day Amsterdam summit next month, Mr Blair and his colleagues have much hard negotiation ahead in defending British Board of Controls and in seeking a strong deal on fisheries quota hopping.