Cook's tour to heart of the European dilemma

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To realise just what a diplomat Robin Cook has become after nearly four years at the Foreign Office, try asking him about the US election.

To realise just what a diplomat Robin Cook has become after nearly four years at the Foreign Office, try asking him about the US election.

It is hard to imagine that the Foreign Secretary, as an engaged interventionist, is not alarmed by the isolationist signals emerging from the Bush camp that "peace-keeping" by US forces, not least in the Balkans, will be history if their man gets into the White House.

But Mr Cook is showing no sign of it. In an interview he said: "We'll respect the American people's choice and we'll set out to maintain in good order the markedly close ties we have built with the US government. I'm quite sure that whoever's elected will want to do so too." And that's it.

He is only a little less careful when asked, after his recent diplomacy in the Middle East, what he thinks of the prospect of Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud party, whom many blame for triggering the violence, joining the government of Ehud Barak. The Foreign Secretary says: "It's not for me to advise the Israeli people who they should have or not have in their government."

But he would clearly have a dim view if the price was withdrawal of the important concessions to the Palestinians at Camp David. "What I said when I was in Jerusalem and say now is that Barak has been courageous in putting more on the table than any previous Israeli prime minister and I hope that anyone new coming into the government would support him in the progress he has made and not undermine him."

There were predictable mutterings here, though, interestingly, not within the Israeli government nor the Palestine Liberation Organisation, about what Mr Cook thought he was doing earlier this month shuttling between Mr Barak and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

The reality is that, with Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary General and Javier Solana, European Union foreign and security representative, Mr Cook was reinforcing the "united message of the international community" that talking was essential if more bloodshed were to be averted and that the bloodshed has to stop before real negotiations can resume.

Mr Cook saw Mr Barak and Mr Arafat twice and played a part persuading the latter to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh summit. Which does not mean he is sanguine. He said: "Some progress has been made ... But the peace process has taken an enormous knock and it will be some time till we get back to negotiations."

On the ousting of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, the other world-changing event of recent weeks, Mr Cook is more bullish. But had the allies in the Kosovo campaign claimed rather more credit for it than they deserved? No. "The first credit is down to the Serb people for their determination and courage on the day they marched on Belgrade. None of them could be sure that the machine of repression would crumble before them." The main factors, he says, were dire economic conditions and the Serbs' sense of isolation and yearning to be a "normal people in a normal country." But he adds: "If we had not taken a firm stand and had instead let Milosevic emerge as a hero, empty Kosovo of Albanians, and let a new generation of Serb settlers emerge, I don't believe for one minute that he would have been thrown out and put on the scrapheap."

But for now the main priority is in the European Union. One purpose of Mr Cook's imminent swing through Europe, of course, is the same as that of Tony Blair's visit to Madrid yesterday - building alliances in advance of December's important EU summit in Nice.

Reforms such as reweighting EU votes are important for enlargement but also specifically for larger states such as Britain, which will have clout more closely matching their populations. And Mr Cook cautiously hints that Britain is ready to lift its stipulation that only one country can veto plans by a group of countries to co-operate on a specific issue, provided that that does not mean an inner core, perhaps excluding Britain, co-operating on a wide range of subjects.

For the other purpose of Mr Cook's European visits is to try to underline some of the messages in Mr Blair's recent Warsaw speech about the kind of Europe Britain wants, which Mr Cook is convinced an increasing number of European leaders want too. "There are few people who are arguing for the federal superstate which is the Eurosceptic nightmare. What they are arguing for is a European union of sovereign member-states. If you want a strong European Union you have to have strong member- states."

There is growing support for a "declaration of competences". The Foreign Secretary said: "A lot of people have a sense of a journey without knowing where the final destination is going to be and that is unhealthy, because it enables those Eurosceptics who don't like the journey at all to paint distressing, frightening images of where we could all end up: a one-way process of integration." Instead, he insists, European leaders are increasingly envisaging "a picture of where the balance might rest ... where Europe adds value because we can't do them separately - and those things which frankly the member-states can do much better than supranational bodies."

Asked how long he will stay in the job, Mr Cook sticks to the formula that he will do it for as long he has the confidence of the Prime Minister. There have been hints in other quarters that assumptions that he will move straight after the general election may be premature.

As it happens, he is favourite to become president of the grouping of EU socialist parties, a job beginning in May. That is hardly conclusive.

But it is clear that, with the travails of his first 18 months behind him, and regarded by Mr Blair as a safe pair of hands, he is more fulfilled in his job than ever.