Hague wants to leave Europe by the back door, says Blair

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR accused William Hague of launching a backdoor attempt to pull Britain out of the European Union yesterday, as he sought to revive Labour's campaign for next week's European Parliament elections.

The Prime Minister responded to Tory taunts that he was "running scared" of talking about Europe during the campaign by making a strong defence of his approach to the EU. He said the choice for the British people next week was "leading Europe or leaving Europe".

In a speech in Swansea, West Glamorgan, Mr Blair attacked the Tory leader's plans for a "pick and mix" Europe in which member states could opt out of key policy areas. "It is actually a recipe for quitting Europe, leaving the EU altogether or being so at its margins that it would make our influence negligible." He warned that "to play games with our membership of the EU is not to advance our national interest but to undermine it."

Privately, senior Labour figures are frustrated that the Tories have set the agenda for the election by running a Eurosceptic campaign. Yesterday, Mr Blair said the Tory strategy was becoming "more and more strident and extreme."

He attacked as "plain daft" Mr Hague's call for the Government to scrap its National Changeover Plan to prepare British business for membership of the single currency. He said this would prevent the British people making a decision on the euro in a referendum. "A vote for the Tories would be a vote for isolationism and impotence," Mr Blair said.

The Prime Minister reiterated that Labour's intention to join the single currency was "real", as were the economic tests it would apply before recommending entry.

The Tories denied that they wanted Britain to leave the EU, saying their policy of "being in Europe, not run by Europe" was in tune with the British public.

Mr Hague stuck to his guns when he addressed a meeting in Bonn of the European People's Party, the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, of which the Tories are associate members. He demanded radical reform of the EU's institutions, calling for an independent anti-fraud office in Brussels, a cut in the number of MEPs and a more accountable Council of Ministers.

"It's time to have fewer politicians, fewer bureaucrats and leaner, fitter European institutions. It's time we built a Europe that does less and does it better... It is time to ring the changes in Europe," he said.

Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister and a strong pro-European, joined Mr Blair's fightback against the Tories yesterday. In an article for the Internet website BBC News Online, he insisted that the birth of the euro would "enhance moves towards a flexible, dynamic, competitive economy". He said British membership "could have huge benefits: lower interest rates, increased investment and downward pressure on prices".

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the Tories had become the "new extremists of British politics" because of their attitudes to Europe. The Tories' opposition to the changeover plan was an "extraordinary policy which will have real costs for Britain", Mr Ashdown said. "This latest move marks their return to the flat-earth theory - it is the triumph of dogma over common sense."

Yesterday, the Tories claimed that Labour would surrender the British veto on a wide range of policies during a review next year of the majority voting system used at meetings of EU ministers - including on immigration policy. But Kate Hoey, the Home Office minister, denied this, saying: "Labour has made clear we will keep the veto for immigration and asylum policy."