Blair: I have failed to change attitudes to the EU

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will today defend his record on the European Union while conceding that he will not achieve the sea change in British public attitudes to the EU.

In a keynote speech in Oxford, the Prime Minister will insist he has achieved his ambition on winning power in 1997 of enhancing Britain's clout in the EU through his policy of "positive engagement".

He will acknowledge he will not secure the "big bang" change in Britain's relationship with Europe through a symbolic event such as winning a referendum on joining the single currency or approving the proposed EU constitution. He will blame Britain's Eurosceptic-dominated newspapers for his lack of success changing public opinion. Mr Blair's highly personal speech, reflecting on his experiences in Europe since becoming Prime Minister, will be seen as an attempt to influence the judgment on his "legacy" before he stands down ahead of the next general election.

Allies denied that, saying he wanted to make a speech summing up Britain's six months in the EU's rotating presidency and to signal to pro-Europeans that he regarded the Europe issue as crucial. Mr Blair will argue that Britain is now in "a much better place" on Europe than when Labour took office, saying it is a "pivotal country" in the mainstream of a growing consensus over the need to adopt economic reforms. He will say this goal is shared by a new generation of leaders in France and Germany as well as the 10 new member states.

The Prime Minister will say: "Europe has emerged from its darkened room. It has a new generation of leaders. A new consensus is forming. Yes, there is still a debate to be had, but the argument in favour of an open Europe is winning".

He will add: "The irony is that after the shock of enlargement, the crisis of the referendums [on the EU constitution], the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey and the agreement of the Budget, with a firm process of reform midway through the next financial term; after all these alarms and excursions, there's never been a better time to be optimistic in Europe or enthusiastic about Britain's part in it."

Mr Blair will reject claims by Eurosceptics that they have "won the argument" because he avoided a showdown with them over the euro or the proposed constitution. He will insist that their hopes of a divorce or separation between Britain and the EU have been dashed by his Government's positive approach.

He will also warn that David Cameron's plan to withdraw the Conservative party's MEPs from the main centre-right group in the European Parliament would weaken Britain's clout.

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