Rifkind calls for clearer EU voice

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Britain wants the European Union to stay out of sensitive foreign policy decisions, Malcolm Rifkind, said yesterday in Paris, but is prepared to let it expand its role.

Less than a month before the opening of the crucial Inter-Governmental Conference on European institutions in Turin, the Foreign Secretary has signalled how far Britain is prepared to accommodate the demands of France and Germany for a common European foreign and security policy, while preserving intact the needs of national sovereignty. His comments show that the Government will carve out a tough position, but has left itself plenty of negotiating room.

In an upbeat speech that defended Europe's record on foreign and defence co-ordination, particularly in former Yugoslavia, Mr Rifkind set out detailed proposals and principles. These included the possibility of naming someone to give European policy what he called "a clearer voice" in the world.

"Like France," he said, "Britain sees possible attractions in appointing a single figure to represent the foreign policy of the Union." But he went on to qualify this by saying that this person should be subordinate to national capitals. He or she should be "somebody appointed and tasked by the Council of ministers; its servant, not its chairman", he said.

He later said this did not rule out someone who would also contribute to policy-making but, he stressed, that person should be a "co-ordinator or spokesman" for a policy determined between governments, like the UN Secretary General. France has consistently argued for someone who would be a "Mr Europe" for the outside world, but has conceived of the position as having executive responsibility rather than the "servant" role Mr Rifkind stipulated.

Rejecting the repeated calls from Germany and others for majority voting on foreign and defence issues in Europe, Mr Rifkind welcomed the recent Franco-German suggestion for "constructive abstention", if only as "implicit recognition" that some alternative to qualified majority voting had to be considered. Constructive abstention is the idea that an individual member state would have the right to dissent from a policy, but not to block it.

But Mr Rifkind warned that such a principle - implying that countries which did not specifically vote for a policy agreed to give it their moral and possibly material support - would not solve real disagreements. It could have applied to Germany over Bosnia, but "would France have been willing to abstain constructively over nuclear testing?"

Mr Rifkind's other major proposal was for closer co-ordination of the EU and the West European Union, the defence body which has links to Nato. The WEU should not become part of the EU, he underlined. Better co-ordination, Mr Rifkind said, would enable "unity of EU action to serve EU political objectives" and he recommended specifically co-ordinating the EU's political and economic activities "more effectively with the military instruments available to the WEU - giving the EU a military capability for the first time, though at arms length.

However, he argued against the WEU becoming the defence wing of the EU, largely because the two organisations are based on separate treaties and membership. The neutral countries, he noted, had only observer status in the WEU; this enabled them to take part in peace-keeping and humanitarian work, but they did not share the higher obligations that came with Nato and WEU membership.