Blair's European honeymoon gets off to warm start

Sarah Helm and Raymond Whitaker on the global reaction to Labour's victory
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The Independent Online
Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister, who currently holds the European Union presidency, will this week become the first foreign leader to meet Tony Blair since his election victory.

As political figures throughout the EU welcome Britain's new Premier into the fold, Mr Kok will come to London as their personal emissary. The avuncular Dutch leader has a soft spot for Mr Blair: the two have met several times before on the international Socialists' circuit and held lengthy talks on Europe in Amsterdam as recently as February.

At that meeting, Mr Blair explained some of the difficulties he faced in drawing up a European agenda, amid the growing Eurosceptic fervour of the pre-election period. Mr Kok reassured him that Europe's heads of government would be only too willing to show flexibility with a future Labour government, in an effort to secure consensus.

Now, with only six weeks to the crucial Amsterdam summit, when Britain is expected to sign up to the new treaty on further European integration, such reassuring words are to be put to the test. Britain's partners have interpreted the Labour landslide as a signal that the country is not, after all, enamoured of Tory Euroscepticism. Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, said on Friday that the British results should be seen as a warning "to all those who want to win votes with anti-European polemics".

There is no doubt that the paltry showing by Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party has been seen by Britain's partners as an overwhelming rebuff to the arguments of the nationalists and protectionists, not just in Britain, but across the Continent too.

The new Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, has already seen evidence of the hopes raised in some parts of the world by Labour's landslide victory.

President Carlos Menem of Argentina on Friday repeated his hope that a Labour government would be more favourable to the country's claim to the Falklands, although even local newspapers and opposition politicians dismissed this as utopian. And the official Syrian newspaper Tishreen yesterday, describing the outgoing Conservatives as "biased to Israel", said it believed Mr Blair would give Europe a greater role in the Middle East peace process.

The number of Socialist leaders in Europe has risen to eight with Mr Blair's election, putting them in the majority, and according to some of the others, a leadership role is waiting for the Prime Minister if he wants it. EU leaders as a body are also going out of their way to demonstrate that they are ready to welcome a British leader to the decision-making top table - diplomats in Brussels have been saying that if only Britain could elect a government with a large enough majority to negotiate with strength, the process of EU deal-making would be instantly easier.

In Washington, too, officials have been making the point that, whatever remnants of a special transatlantic relationship remained when Labour was last in office, Britain's greatest value to the US is as a member in good standing of Europe. The chemistry between Bill Clinton and Mr Blair will certainly be better than with Mr Major's Conservatives, who had serious differences with Washington over Northern Ireland and who actively assisted Mr Clinton's Republican rivals in the 1992 election campaign.

At this week's meeting, however, Mr Blair may find out just how long his honeymoon with Europe is likely to last. Once the congratulations are over, Mr Kok will move swiftly to the tough business of negotiation, setting out the controversial decisions which still must be taken before the Amsterdam treaty can be signed.

The Dutch prime minister, one of the strongest advocates of the single currency, is certain to tell Mr Blair that Britain no longer has any time to "wait and see". Mr Kok will make clear that speculation about a delay is over and the launch date for monetary union of 1 January 1999 is now set in stone.