Rifkind sets sights on close US ties

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Malcolm Rifkind took office as Foreign Secretary yesterday with a pledge to strengthen the Atlantic alliance while mustering a "stalwart defence of British interests" within the European Union.

Mr Rifkind declared the EU to be "a great historical achievement," announced that terms like "scepticism" were out of date, and said the vast majority of the Conservative Party believed in constructive membership of the union.

Mr Rifkind has signalled that there will be little, if any, change in Britain's negotiating stance before the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference by retaining David Davis as Minister of State responsible for the talks.

The British approach has, in fact, been considerably more "sceptical" - to use an outdated epithet - than the rebel wing of the party has recognised. Mr Rifkind gave a crumb of comfort to anti-federalists by saying Britain would be content "only with a Europe of nation states" and would not consent to "a sterile search for uniformity".

The new Foreign Secretary is an enthusiast for closer ties between the United States and western Europe and is keen to promote the idea of an "Atlantic Community".

The US State Department said yesterday that the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, wanted to meet Mr Rifkind at the earliest opportunity. The two men's first concern will be the wars in former Yugoslavia, which Mr Rifkind has already handled as Defence Secretary. Yesterday he rebutted a suggestion that Britain was on the verge of a decision whether or not to withdraw United Nations troops. "The reinforcement of Unprofor," he said, "reflects our judgement that Unprofor is doing valuable work and we wish it to continue."

Turning to Hong Kong, the Foreign Secretary said there had been positive steps in negotiations on the handover to China in 1997 but he wanted to see "more progress in the interests of the people of Hong Kong".

In a move that may raise some eyebrows, Mr Rifkind has entrusted the Hong Kong portfolio to the former Conservative Party chairman, Jeremy Hanley, who becomes a Minister of State. Foreign Office officials were quick to point out that Mr Hanley had served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten.