EU seeks help from Blair on foreign policy

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will be asked today to throw his weight behind plans to give Europe a single, powerful voice on foreign affairs in a move that could strengthen the role of the European Commission.

The plea, which will come at a meeting with the Belgian presidency of the European Union in Downing Street, follows hints by the Prime Minister in a speech he made in Birmingham on Friday that he supports such a plan.

Belgium has been delighted at the unequivocal pro-European tone emerging from Downing Street and is keen to capitalise on it.

Mr Blair's spokesman said today's meeting with Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister, would focus on the progress of the war in Afghanistan and the agenda for the Laeken summit on 13-14 December, which will set up a convention to debate the future of Europe.

The Belgians have been struck by criticism in Mr Blair's Birmingham speech of the arrangements in the EU for handling foreign affairs, which he said were "too confused and overlapping".

On Friday a Franco-German summit produced joint support for a European constitution. Supporters of the idea, which has always been opposed by Britain, noted Mr Blair's reference to a debate on the EU's "constitutional future".

Mr Verhofstadt's visit will be seized upon by the Conservatives as evidence of a secret agenda by Mr Blair and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to increase EU integration.

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "On Friday, France and Germany issued a joint commitment to a legally binding European constitution. Blair's and Straw's words sit easily with it. The truth behind all this is that Blair's European superpower agenda is on course, and he is determined to lead it. Astonishingly he is seeking to use the current international crisis as the vehicle to promote it."

The EU divides responsibilities on foreign affairs between its high representative, Javier Solana, who represents the 15 member states, and the European commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten. The prime minister and foreign minister of the rotating EU presidency also speak on crucial issues. But with the crisis in Afghanistan propelling foreign policy to the top of the agenda, the array of voices emanating from Europe is increasingly seen as a handicap.