Blair takes high ground on Europe

Labour leader implores Britain to `get on with it'
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A Labour government would adopt a policy of "constructive engagement" in Europe, Tony Blair, the party leader, pledged yesterday in a bid to snatch the political agenda from a deeply-divided Tory party.

"We cannot remain in limbo, with the worst of both worlds for ever ... for heaven's sake let us get on with it," Mr Blair told the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, London.

The Labour leader emphasised that "for this generation at least, there are clear limits to integration, and this is felt right across Europe". And while deriding Government policy on European monetary union as "unclear", he made no clear commitment that Labour supported a single currency as a matter of principle.

The speech - high on political positioning but low on policy details - could have been penned by Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke or Douglas Hurd. But Mr Blair seized the opportunity to emphasise: "Cabinet ministers who defend Europe are excoriated. Those that damn it are praised. There is no doubt in the Tory party which side is gaining ground." He described Labour's present position as "several shades milder" than that of Michael Heseltine in the late Eighties.

The rewritten Clause IV supported subsidiarity - the principle that decisions should be taken as far as practicable by the communities they affect - he said, while Labour was for a Europe that was less wasteful and inefficient, and against the scandals and waste of the Common Agricultural Policy. It would maintain "vigorously" the national veto in areas such as security and immigration.

Mr Blair lambasted the Tory Euro-sceptics, while dismissing claims of Labour splits over the single European currency as "glib". He said the real issue was "where does the centre of gravity lie?" In the Tory party, it was moving strongly towards withdrawal from the EU, he claimed.

The only significant difference between the contents of yesterday's speech and the Euro-sceptical line the Government is now attempting to pursue came as Mr Blair called for an end to behind-closed-doors meetings of the Council of Ministers in legislative session.

Bill Cash, the MP for Stafford and a leading Tory Euro-sceptic, claimed some credit for the speech, saying: "The Euro-realists are now winning across the board. The plain truth is that people are having to come to terms with the reality that we got it right.

"This will continue, but it has to be complemented by effective decision- making. Mr Blair is not in a position to do that, but there is no doubt that this speech will have an impact in so far as it is demonstrating that we have won our case."