Kissing has to stop as EU and Blair strike their deals

Friday's summit marks the end of the honeymoon with New Labour, writes Sarah Helm in Brussels
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Since the moment it was elected, Britain's new government has been furiously flirting with Europe. New Labour ministers have been trekking to the Continent, making lavish promises of warm relations as they hugged, patted and kissed.

Now, suddenly, the period of courtship is coming to a close, and the time to sign up to a contract is here. Today Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary (who has hugged more than most) meets his European partners for serious negotiation in The Hague. On Friday Tony Blair will attend a mini-summit in the Dutch town of Noordwijk. At both meetings discussions will shift gear, as proclamations of good intent give way to detailed examination of treaty texts.

The texts have been produced during the Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) on European reform - the negotiations to restructure the European Union's institutions. The results of the IGC will be written into the Treaty of Amsterdam, to be signed next month at the Amsterdam summit. Even the most enthusiastic watcher of EU politics could be forgiven for losing track of progress in the IGC, which has been grinding on for 18 months.

Britain's new government has itself shown little inclination to examine the details of arcane issues such as vote-weighting, the "third pillar" (including immigration and judicial co-operation) and flexibility, preferring to stick with broad themes.

But the Amsterdam summit is now four weeks away, and the deals struck on the new texts will define Britain's "new relations" with Europe for some time to come.

At the IGC launch in Turin in March 1995, heads of government pledged that the reforms they were wanted were to be far-reaching, in order to re-shape the Union so it could work effectively as a union of 27, after enlargement to the east.

Such arguments fuelled fears in Britain of a new march to federalism and the Conservative government set about stalling the the negotiations, arguing that the IGC should be viewed more as a 5,000-mile service than a complete overhaul.

Today the new Labour government takes essentially the same view as the Conservatives of what the ambitions of the IGC should be.

When the new ministers talks of a "fresh start", they are not advocating massive new powers for the EU institutions.

Rather, they are advocating a more co-operative approach between Britain and Europe, in the hope that, if the venom can be taken out of the relationship, Britain's modest views of how far integration should go will be seen to strike a chord with other member-states. Labour was furious when Jacques Santer, the European Commission president, set out his own integrationist agenda in the middle of the British election campaign. Mr Blair has since made his displeasure with Mr Santer felt by refusing to meet him in the past fortnight, and offering to see him only in the sidelines of the Friday summit.

But whatever Mr Santer may still be saying, the new government's hopes that the ambition of Amsterdam can be tailored down now look likely to be satisfied. Since Turin, a failure to agree in many areas, combined with a growing awareness that the European public has no appetite for massive new integration, has forced many leaders to trim their more lofty ambitions. Britain will now find it has allies when it resists on certain key integrationist points.

For example, the new government only wants a limited extension of qualified majority voting (QMV), which would remove national vetoes. Many other member-states are reluctant to extend QMV in many areas and have failed to agree a list for action. Germany objects to ending unanimity over environment policy, while Spain objects to ending it for decisions on culture policy.

The much-discussed concept of "flexibility" was hailed as a new mechanism which would allow the Union to integrate faster by give some groups of states the right to pool powers at a different pace from others. Labour has been wary of flexibility, and today the other 14 are also at odds over how it should work.

The most ambitious programme of integration centres on justice and immigration policy. Labour, like the Conservatives, has insisted on maintaining its frontier controls and opposes giving EU institutions greater powers over justice and immigration.

Most member-states began the IGC discussions by saying that more pooling powers in these areas was vital if the Union was to respond to the new challenges of international crime and asylum-seeking.

Eighteen months later, however, there is confusion about how far the "third pillar" will be further integrated. Britain looks certain to secure its opt-out on the issue of frontier controls.

The negotiations in the run-up to Amsterdam are certain to be tough.

But it is likely that time Mr Blair will next month sign an Amsterdam Treaty which does more resemble a 5,000-mile service than a giant step towards new integration.