Strain starts to show in Labour's EU honeymoon

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The Independent Online
Europe's honeymoon with Labour began showing the first signs of strain yesterday amid warnings that slick PR and smooth words are no longer enough. Katherine Butler reports from Strasbourg.

Unveiling plans for Britain's six-month EU presidency to the European Parliament yesterday, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, repeated the Government's aim of "reconnecting" Europe to the people. Labour would try to build in Britain "a national consensus" after years of Tory hostility he pledged.

Mr Cook was left in no doubt during the debate which followed, however, of the deep sense of disappointment at Labour's decision to keep Britain out of the project which will have more impact than any other on its people: the single currency.

And despite a general acknowledgement that the Blair government has transformed the atmosphere in relations between Britain and Europe, MEPs demanded that it now begin to deliver, to turn good intentions into concrete results, in particular on monetary union.

Betraying some irritation at new Labour's apparent emphasis on style over substance where Europe is concerned, the Liberal leader in the Strasbourg Parliament sniped that few presidencies had enjoyed such goodwill on taking office "and few have engaged in such a vast public relations exercise to generate it".

Gijs De Vries said it was "regrettable" that the British government had not been prepared to state "unambiguously and irrevocably" if and when the UK will join the single currency.

"The presidency will thus enter these crucial negotiations with one hand tied firmly behind its back. Tony Blair wants to lead in Europe - but Britain cannot expect to lead from the sidelines," Mr De Vries told the chamber.

The Christian Democrat leader, Wilfried Martens, a former Belgian prime minister, also regretted the UK's self-imposed disqualification from the first wave of EMU and warned that "a heavy responsibility" would be placed on Britain to win over public acceptance for the single currency.

To raised eyebrows from Mr Cook, the Strasbourg assembly's Green leader, Claudia Roth, said the Blair government appeared to be conducting a "rock and roll presidency" while the SNP's Winnie Ewing speaking on behalf of deputies in the European Radical group said it reminded her more of "a slow foxtrot" with foot dragging on the single currency.

The Foreign Secretary said Britain's priorities would be on jobs, crime and the environment but moved to allay fears on Britain's role in the negotiations on monetary union. "We will discharge this responsibility to the best of our abilities fully and scrupulously in a way that shows Europe's constructive approach at is best. We want Economic and Monetary Union to be a success" he said.

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