Rifkind in shift away from Europe

Malcolm Rifkind yesterday went further than any modern British Foreign Secretary in a public attempt to shift the focus of policy away from Europe, calling for greater "internationalism" marked by closer links to the United States and the growing economies of Asia.

His words will be seen as a move to placate the Eurosceptic Tory right and a response to recent criticism inside the Conservative Party of the conduct of foreign policy under Douglas Hurd.

They were immediately challenged by Labour's Robin Cook, who recalled John Major's pledge five years ago to place Britain at the heart of Europe. "Today we have a candid admission from the Foreign Secretary that they have failed in that objective and are prepared to put Britain at the margins of Europe," Mr Cook said.

He claimed Labour would present a "positive agenda for reform in Europe" which would end what he called Britain's position as "a minority of one" in the European Union.

The contrasting approaches to Europe signified a sharp difference between the major parties ahead of the inter-governmental conference in 1996 and the next general election.

Mr Cook was speaking on the same day that Mr Rifkind made his first keynote speech as Foreign Secretary. Speaking at Chatham House, Mr Rifkind made his theme a redefinition of Britain's place in the world between Europe, the United States and Asia.

Taking what he called "a cool assessment of British interests", Mr Rifkind dismissed the possibility of a common European foreign and security policy "in the foreseeable future". He also made a strong, if convoluted, attack on the idea of a "two-speed Europe" in which countries like Germany would move faster than others towards economic and monetary union.

Mr Rifkind said that it was unwise to talk of a two-speed Europe. "It implies a common destination arrived at in different time-scales," he said. Britain might stay out of social policy or a single currency for ever, he implied.

Mr Rifkind departed from the cherished Foreign Office doctrine that Britain must always seek to maintain its influence by participating fully in the European Union. He said it could sometimes be sensible to accept a loss of influence if it proved necessary to protect national interests. "Influence can never be an end in itself and we should not be obsessed by it," the Foreign Secretary said.

He said he wanted to nurture closer ties with the United States and he favoured an "Atlantic Community" based on free trade and the common strands of politics and culture.

He called for a renewed effort to embrace the former Communist nations, singling out Ukraine as a crucial partner for the West.

Mr Rifkind prescribed free trade for these countries, too, as a "Marshall Plan" for the end of the century.

Turning to Asia, the Foreign Secretary argued that Britain must compete harder to increase exports and to win inward investment. He said the Commonwealth was "a priceless asset" to win "market shares" for Britain.

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