Jack Straw, the new Foreign Secretary, made a firm commitment yesterday to Britain's "constructive" role in Europe, rejecting suggestions that he had been appointed because he was a Eurosceptic.
Speaking after his first meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, Mr Straw said his "key duty" was to represent British interests, and that the past four years of "constructive engagement" had been a success.
When the Government took over from the Conservatives in 1997, the situation it inherited within the EU was "worse than a political vacuum", he argued,
"I am personally committed," Mr Straw said. "For all its warts and there are many I have developed, and it has been a journey, a strong sense that the EU is a far better way of resolving conflicts than the way we resolved conflict in the previous thousand years."
Shaking off the allegations of Eurosceptism, the Foreign Secretary said he preferred to be judged "by results" while it was "for others to attach the labels". But Mr Straw remained Delphic about the Government's intentions towards the single currency, arguing that "the position remains unchanged", with five economic tests for entry yet to have been met. The Cabinet shake-up provoked curiosity across the EU because of the unexpected demotion of his predecessor, Robin Cook, who made no secret of his enthusiasm for British membership of the single currency.
The Foreign Secretary arrives in the job at a time of new political trauma after the Irish rejected the Nice Treaty in a referendum. The treaty is designed to pave the way for Europe's expansion to include up to 12 new countries.
Mr Straw said he "respected what the people decided but regretted the decision", adding that the 14 other countries would try to help allay the anxieties of the Irish people.
EU foreign ministers ruled out renegotiating the Nice Treaty, putting the onus on the Dublin government to find ways in which to reverse the decision of its voters through a second referendum.
Brian Cowen, Ireland's Foreign Minister, described the turn-out of 34 per cent as "disappointingly low", saying that the debate "did not indicate any significant opposition to enlargement". He added: "The support of our government for the enlargement process is not in question."
But he refused to go into any detail about the concessions or clarifications which Dublin will want before it attempts to reverse the referendum verdict.
Europe's ministers insisted that Europe's ambitious expansion plans would not be derailed by the surprise decision of Ireland's voters.
Nevertheless, the referendum "no" causes huge potential complications for the EU because the Nice Treaty puts in place the minimum institutional changes for enlargement to take place. It must be ratified by all 15 member states before it can enter into force, a fact that makes a second Irish referendum almost inevitable.Reuse content