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Cook's steady guide for a tour of Europe

Andrew Marshall on the Foreign Office grandee chosen by Labour as its EU envoy
Robin Cook this week put his latest secret weapon on show. Sir Michael Butler, the shadow Foreign Secretary's special envoy on Europe, made his first appearance in that role at a press conference in Westminster.

Sir Michael was as discreet as one would expect a former ambassador to be. He spoke little and kept away from politics, though all the while his sharp eyes darted around the conference room. But his presence sent complex signals to Europe, of which Sir Michael will have been very aware.

Sir Michael is the model of a Foreign Office grandee. Britain's longest serving ambassador to the European Union, he was also head of the unit which handled Britain's entry to Europe, and deputy under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office. Since leaving the diplomatic service he has become a director of the merchant bank Hambros, advised the government of Ukraine, become deputy chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and published two books on Chinese porcelain. Beside these challenges, helping the Labour Party in Europe must seem small beer.

His task is to prepare for the British presidency of the EU, which will cover the first six months of 1998. During that time it is anticipated that negotiations will begin on the membership of Central and East European nations in the EU. By then, Labour hopes to have won power; and it wants to ensure that this delicate process will be as carefully handled as possible, and that the handover from one party to another in London will cause minimum disruption. With that end in mind, Sir Michael has already met senior officials in Brussels and is embarking on a series of meetings with embassies in London and governments in East Europe.

The policies of Labour and the Conservatives on enlargement are all but indistinguishable. Both see it as the most important task of the EU over the next five years. Both want to avoid causing problems for countries which are not in the first wave of enlargement. Both want to see it done at minimum cost. Labour is more explicit that enlargement means reforming EU institutions, but is equally insistent on preserving the British veto.

Both Mr Cook and Sir Michael used the occasion to attack the Tories. Sir Michael said their handling of the beef crisis had badly hurt British interests. Mr Cook said that Labour was committed to a "fresh start in Europe". But the sparring over domestic politics is largely beside the point. The appointment of Sir Michael seems to be squarely aimed at an overseas constituency, in both Eastern and Western Europe.

It is partly a practical matter. There are plenty of tough issues that the Labour Party will have to confront in Europe as soon as it takes over government, and most of them are conducted in a language so arcane that no matter how well briefed Mr Cook might be, he will initially have trouble handling them. The last set of enlargement negotiations finished with a spectacularly complicated deal involving what were called accelerated paper cohesion fish, for instance. As Foreign Secretary, Mr Cook would have civil servants to handle all of this for him, but they will not be around until next year. Until then, he needs a point man.

Sir Michael speaks the lingo. He eased his way around all of the difficult questions at the press conference, disarming the tricky ones with obscure references to the Own Resources ceiling and qualified majority voting. And there is plenty of substance there as well. When he was in Brussels, he met commissioners, diplomats and Jim Cloos, the chef de cabinet to commission President, Jacques Santer. This is a serious operation.

There is a second virtue in Sir Michael's appointment, beyond his evident competence. He represents continuity, the idea that foreign policy will (in many respects) be maintained on the same tram lines laid down by the present government. Sir Michael worked in the Foreign Office under alternating Labour and Conservative governments, discussing Labour's planned renegotiation of entry, the British referendum, Margaret Thatcher's arrival and the handbagging sessions which culminated in the British budget rebate. Jim Callaghan, Tony Crosland, David Owen, Lord Carrington, Francis Pym, Geoffrey Howe - Mr Cook would just be another on the list of Foreign Secretaries whom he had served.

But there is also an element of change flagged by Sir Michael's appointment. Labour wants to suggest both that it will be more positive (Mr Cook's "fresh start") but also no pushover (it was Sir Michael who won the budget rebate, after all).

What this exercise is about is signalling to the rest of the world that Mr Cook is ready to get his feet under the desk, reassert British influence where it matters and use the sharpest people to do it. It is a case of New Labour, Old Diplomacy. It is going down well in Europe; and should Mr Cook ever occupy those rather grand offices in King Charles Street, it will stand him in very good stead.