Paris and Bonn hail Britain as equal partner

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The Independent Online
Robin Cook claimed a place for Britain in the leadership of Europe yesterday, and pledged that Tony Blair would reach agreement with his partners on European Union reform.

"We want to draw a line under the sterile and negative confrontation of the past," he told the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel.

In a high profile trip to Paris and Bonn, his first since becoming Foreign Secretary only five days ago, Mr Cook identified key areas of potential agreement between the UK and its EU partners which he was optimistic would pave the way for a deal at the European summit in Amsterdam next month.

"I want today to be start of a new era of relationship between Britain and Europe," he said after talks with Mr Kinkel. "We want to be helping to shape the direction of Europe."

The Foreign Secretary hailed an agreement on banning land mines with Herve de Charette, the French Foreign Minister, and Mr Kinkel as heralding a new era in which Britain would be equal partners with France and Germany and no longer a third party "heckling from the sidelines". The deal - proclaimed by Mr Kinkel as "a very good beginning" to the new post-election Anglo-German relationship - coincided with the formal announcement of a moratorium on British forces' use of land mines.

Mr Cook made it clear in meetings with both foreign ministers that the new government was determined to enshrine the UK's permanent right to maintain its own border controls and he repeated that the government would not agree at the Amsterdam Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) to give the EU responsibilities for defence.

But he also laid heavy emphasis on the readiness of the new government to see new "co-decision" powers for the European Parliament on all directives decided by majority vote, as well as the UK's eagerness to sign up both to the Social Chapter and to an Employment Chapter putting jobs at the top of the European agenda. He also cited the enforcement of anti-fraud measures as one of several headings under which Britain is prepared to accept a limited increase in majority voting.

Mr Cook hinted that Britain might be prepared to accept some of the Franco- German proposals for "flexibility", which would allow a core group of EU states to deepen integration, without waiting for the "slowest boat in the convoy" to catch up.

He blamed Tory "obstruction" for forcing the leading group, lead by France and Germany, to cut themselves away from the laggards. The urge by the self-appointed leaders to opt out might weaken, now that Britain is aboard, he suggested.

At the same time Mr Cook made it clear that there were sharp limits to any "flexibility package" that Britain would accept. The Foreign Secretary said any such package would have to be ratified unanimously.

Britain will press for such deals to cover a minimum of around 10 countries to ensure that European Monetary Union does not pave the way for a reversion to an inner core of the half dozen countries which belonged to the EC before 1973.

Mr Cook was also emphatic that he saw no reason for such a pact to cover foreign and security policy - where the Labour government will insist on retaining its veto. Such a deal, he said would undermine the international influence of the union as a trading bloc.

There are strong signs, reinforced in Mr Cook's discussions in Paris at the Quai D'Orsay, the French Foreign Office, yesterday, that Britain's partners are moving to an accommodation on the issue of border controls which recognises the special status of both the UK and Ireland as islands. And while insisting that Britain wanted progress in securing reform of fisheries quota-hopping Mr Cook conspicuously refrained from repeating the Conservative administration's explicit threat to sabotage the IGC if it did not get full agreement on the issue next month.

Mr Cook repeatedly drew a distinction between the new government's stance of "constructive engagement" with that of the previous one which had staged a confrontation which had been going "nowhere in Europe except towards the exit door".

Mr Cook was accorded a warm welcome in both capitals after declaring "we are committed to making Britain a leading player in Europe and that is why it is right that I should begin by visiting the other two big players in Europe. We want to make sure that from now on there are three players in Europe, not just two."

While emphasising the importance of Bonn's relationship with the new government, Mr Kinkel sounded a slightly more cautious note last night, saying it would not be right to talk of a "triangular relationship" between London, Paris and Bonn. But the Paris end of the Franco-German axis welcomed the idea of involving London in a "triangle".