Blair backs multi-speed EU with eastern states

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair will urge the European Union today to admit the former communist countries of eastern Europe within four years, and back plans for a multi-speed Europe that would let some countries forge ahead while others opt out of closer integration.

Tony Blair will urge the European Union today to admit the former communist countries of eastern Europe within four years, and back plans for a multi-speed Europe that would let some countries forge ahead while others opt out of closer integration.

In his most important European speech yet, Mr Blair will tell an audience in Warsaw that a wider Europe can bring stability to the east, but the EU needs to improve its communications with its citizens.

The Blair lecture is Britain's answer to provocative proposals for a de facto two-speed Europe by Germany's Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, the French President, Jacques Chirac, and the European Commission president, Romano Prodi.

The decision to open membership discussions with 13 new applicant countries was made at a summit in Helsinki last December. But with the creaking decision machinery, there is worry in many national capitals that an EU of more than 20 members will be hopelessly unmanageable.

By setting a target for some applicant countries to be inside the Union before the next European Parliament elections in summer 2004, Mr Blair will try to head off growing doubts about expansion, particularly in France and Germany. "Supporting enlargement in principle but delay in practice is no longer good enough," one British official said yesterday.

Mr Blair believes the EU should offer more generous transition periods for applicant countries to meet some of Europe's legal requirements. He is expecting backing from Sweden, which takes over the EU presidency in January, and held talks with the Swedish premier, Goran Persson, on Monday.

Today's speech, at the Warsaw stock exchange, also reflects the British belief in government-to-government cooperation, and the need for the EU to be more accountable to national politicians. Mr Blair will call for a new political declaration to define the division of powers between member states and the EU. He also proposes a new second chamber in the European Parliament, made up of national politicians, which would police such a catalogue of competences.

The Prime Minister will be careful to praise the role of the Commission, but he will also propose reforms to reinforce the supremacy of the Council of Ministers, which represents the 15 governments.

Downing Street wants to see a new annual agenda for the EU, compiled with the Commission but agreed by heads of government, to set out a work programme for the next year.Mr Blair also believes there is scope for reforming the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, which will come under more pressure with the addition of new, small nations. One possibility is to reform it into teams of countries.

More important is the Prime Minister's endorsement of the idea of closer co-operation among groups of European countries, something previously viewed with suspicion by London because of the risk of being consigned to Europe's slow lane. Danish rejection of the euro has crystallised the division between the 12 who are in economic and monetary union, and Britain, Sweden and Denmark, which will not join in the foreseeable future - strengthening the case for a multi-speed Europe.

Mr Blair will stress that closer co-operation must be an "instrument to strengthen the union from within, not an instrument of exclusion", a challenge to Mr Chirac, who backs a new "pioneer group" of countries to be signed up to a fast-track of integration.

The Government now sees potential for closer co-operation in areas such as foreign policy and defence, justice and home affairs and the environment, provided the groups set up are open to all to join eventually.

The EU should be free to operate "at different speeds but not in different tiers", a British official said. That removes a big potential roadblock from the negotiations on treaty changes at Nice in December.

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