Rifkind set to explain EU to the ordinary European

In an effort to reassert Britain's influence in the European Union, the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, is planning a series of speeches in continental capitals to defend the Government's resistance to closer European integration. His intention is to make a direct appeal to European public opinion and bypass ministers and other politicians in EU countries who believe in greater European unity.

"We need to see a real debate joined among and between the peoples of Europe," he told the French Chamber of Commerce in London yesterday. "For too long the debate has been conducted between politicians with occasional contributions from academics, diplomats and journalists. Today the negotiations are about . . . jobs, trade, our environment and our quality of life. Because these issues affect everyone, their resolution cannot just be left to the political class to debate."

His speeches in Stockholm, Paris, Bonn and other capitals will aim to sway opinion to the Government view that the EU should keep supranational measures of integration to a minimum. He believes tens of millions of ordinary Europeans are no more keen than the Government to see the end of the nation-state, but that their views are not properly reflected in their leaders' policies.

Mr Rifkind's planned oratorical excursion around Europe seems a much more explicit attempt to influence opinion than the New Year's message which got the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, into such hot water in Britain. He expressed the somewhat innocent hope that Britain would not turn its back on Europe in the coming election, and was surprised to find himself being roundly denounced for interfering in Britain's internal affairs.

However, should Mr Rifkind come under continental criticism during his speech campaign, he could refer to the argument used by the German Foreign Ministry to defend Mr Kinkel. In essence, this was that the concept of "interference" in another country's affairs has become increasingly meaningless as the European Union's member states have drawn closer together.

Mr Rifkind's central message is that Britain's history gives it a special attachment to the nation state, but that there remains a bedrock of common values binding the country to its European neighbours. At the same time, he contends that other EU governments are jumping ahead of public opinion in their own countries by trying to force through a programme of far-reaching integration.

It is an argument that Britain's negotiating partners have become accustomed to hearing at sessions of the EU's 10-month-old intergovernmental conference (IGC) on revising the Maastricht treaty. Some point out that the British case, though persuasive in many respects, has tended to translate in practice into a negative, obstructive stance at the IGC.

"It is the substance and the details that matter," one diplomat said, "and on much of the substance and many of the details of IGC reform, Britain has been alone or in a minority."

Only last Wednesday, Mr Rifkind reaffirmed that the Government opposed the idea that some members could use EU institutions to develop closer integration among themselves without the approval of other states. The Government is also reluctant to extend the use of qualified majority voting in the EU, even though some extension would be essential if, as Britain wishes, the EU is to enlarge and take in the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe.

Mr Rifkind said yesterday that "we want our modern vision of Europe to be understood for what it is - the way of sustaining the European ideal for the long term". But he is launching his campaign at a time when many pro-Europeans in Britain argue that the Government has managed to reduce British influence in the EU to a historic low.

As Sir Michael Butler, Labour's EU envoy and a veteran negotiator in Europe, put it on Wednesday in The Independent: "We have. . . taken an ideological and negative line in the IGC designed to prepare for enlargement. The consequence of thus appeasing our ill-informed Euro-sceptics has been to reduce our influence to the lowest point ever."

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