Blair attacks the 'supreme folly' of the Eurosceptics

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Tony Blair tried to turn back the tide of Euroscepticism last night when he said Britain would be a much stronger player in the world if it became fully involved in the European Union.

Tony Blair tried to turn back the tide of Euroscepticism last night when he said Britain would be a much stronger player in the world if it became fully involved in the European Union.

The Prime Minister told guests at the Lord Mayor's banquet at the Mansion House, it would be "an act of supreme folly" and "frankly ludicrous" for Britain to adopt the approach of the "isolationist tendency" such as the Tory Opposition.

In an era of "global politics," Mr Blair said being "stronger in Europe is stronger outside Europe. Less influence in Europe means less influence: period."

Although Britain was not a superpower, he said it was "a pivotal power in international affairs". He went on: "In a world of alliances, we must have allies... So let us be at the centre of events, not a spectator; in particular be a leading partner in Europe, not a bit player."

Mr Blair pledged that the Government would defend Britain's interests against what he called "misguided interventions" by the EU. But he insisted his "enlightened patriotism" was the true way to stand up for Britain. "The patriot is not the person who pulls up the drawbridge and sits in his tower musing on the errors of the world," he said.

In effect, Mr Blair went "back to basics" by promoting EU membership in a tacit admission that Labour would not make the case for joining the single currency until after the general election. The euro merited only a passing mention in his speech, in which he said the Government's policy on it would not change.

With public support for the euro dwindling, pro-European ministers admit it will be difficult to win support for it while the currency is seen as weak. One said yesterday that the prospects of Mr Blair calling a referendum on the issue in the next Parliament if he wins the election were "only 50-50".

Despite Labour's temporary retreat on the euro, Mr Blair wants to adopt a more aggressive approach to Europe before a crucial summit of EU leaders in Nice next month.

He wants to blunt Tory attacks that claim a governing EU treaty to be agreed at the meeting would create an "EU superstate". But his move was undermined yesterday when France increased the pressure on Britain to scrap its veto over some areas of taxation policy. It tabled a new set of draft proposals for the Nice summit highlighting the need for more majority voting.

Although Britain has threatened to block any extension of majority voting to tax, France, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, wants the veto to be abolished in a several areas, including measures to tackle fraud and tax evasion. The moves are backed strongly by Germany. Yesterday Mr Blair refused to budge when he discussed the summit with Jacques Chirac, the French President, in a 75-minute video-conference.

Britain's allies on the tax issue include Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Luxembourg, but concessions by the French on other issues could leave the government isolated.

William Hague accused Mr Blair of preparing the ground for "a further sell-out" at the Nice summit, saying Britain could surrender its veto over industrial and transport policy.

The Tory leader said in a speech at Magdalen College, Oxford: "The Prime Minister and his ministers use every contortion of the truth, every possible deception and every trick in the spin-doctor's armoury to try to pretend that they are not willing participants in the creation of a European superstate."

He said the next Tory government would insist on a different type of Europe "a flexible, free-trading Europe of independent nation states".

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, told the Centre for European Reform: "It is patriotism, it is national self-interest, to argue for Britain's full engagement as a leading partner in Europe. It is a betrayal of our nation and our future constantly to obstruct every fresh opportunity for co-operation in Europe."

The vision of Europe portrayed by most of Britain's press was based on "myth" rather than reality and they were failing in their mission to inform, said Mr Cook.

He dismissed as "the biggest Euromyth of all" Tory claims that Europe was developing into a superstate.