Labour's man for EU seeks new start

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The Independent Online
Britain will seek a fresh start in Europe and draw a line under the past, Doug Henderson, the new minister in charge of relations with the European Union said on his first official visit to Brussels yesterday.

Mr Henderson began the monumental task of turning years of bitter confrontation into lasting partnership. In terms not heard from a British minister in Brussels for many years, he said: "We want to work with you as colleagues in a shared enterprise. Not using the language of opponents. Europe, for the new British government, is an opportunity not a threat."

The minister, a marathon runner and Newcastle MP with no known previous experience of European relations, confirmed that the Labour government would sign up to the Social Chapter, thereby removing the most significant source of bitterness in British-EU relations.

"My government will end the United Kingdom's opt-out from the Social Agreement. We believe that the Social Agreement in its current form represents a sensible balance between social responsibility and economic efficiency."

Mr Henderson told Britain's partners that the Labour government would "talk tough" in representing British interests, but wanted a "fresh start" and hoped to "draw a line under the recent past".

Before taking his seat at the negotiations of an Amsterdam treaty - one of the toughest dealing tables in Brussels - Mr Henderson had undergone Foreign Office briefings on every aspect of EU affairs.

After a warm welcome from Michiel Patijn, the Dutch president of the group, Mr Henderson set out his opening statement identifying his government's priorities.

Reaching a deal by the Amsterdam summit in June would be a "top priority" he insisted, to the relief of his European counterparts after 18 months of stalled talks with his predecessors.

The Social Chapter contains only two directives; one giving all working parents a right to three months' unpaid leave after the birth of a child; and the creation of works councils in multi-national firms.

Although it was confirmed in Brussels yesterday that the European Commission would like to extend worker consultation to national firms, the view that there was no great "raft of legislation" on the way was challenged by Graham Mather, Conservative Member of the European Parliament for Hampshire North and Oxford.

He said a "floodgate" of new legislation was about to be opened up. "The Labour government's decision to sign the Social Chapter will mean that there are likely to be six new pieces of labour legislation coming down the pipeline from Brussels in the Government's first year of office.

"The most far-reaching measure will be a law requiring all companies with more than 50 employees to set up works councils, which would have rights to be consulted on business decisions and new company strategies."

In Britain, Mr Henderson actions provoked Tory outrage.

Stephen Dorrell, the former Secretary of State for Health, said: "They [Labour] have been in office less than a week but they are already adding costs to British business, undermining British competitiveness and undermining the authority of Parliament."