Why Europe may be longing for Labour

Sarah Helm in Brussels on enthusiasm for the discreet charm of Tony Blair

EUROPE is waiting for Tony Blair. That is the message that Europe's socialist leaders will pass on to the Labour chief when they meet at a conference in Lisbon next weekend, to prepare a European socialist strategy for the forthcoming inter-governmental conference on EU reform.

Europe's political elite - and not just the socialists - have made it clear that they are sick and tired of the stubbornness of Tory attitudes towards Europe, which is retarding the growth and development of their union. They like what they have heard and seen of Mr Blair and Robin Cook, the shadow foreign secretary. In particular, they like what they hear about Labour's ideas of stake-holding."It seems to match many of our ideas about social partnership," says Michael Hofman, international secretary general of the SPD, the German opposition socialists.

"Blair's views on partnership between trade unions, industry and government seem to be much closer to what is already the European mainstream," says a senior aide of Wim Kok, the socialist Prime Minister of the Netherlands. "It will be a relief to have someone the other side of the water to whom we can talk."

Such comments suggest that for the Europeans Mr Blair represents a mysterious new species: a British politician who they might be able to understand. Furthermore they say he is "charming" and speaks good French. Not that the discussions at Lisbon will be all sweetness and light, though. While the comments this week on Mr Blair's European credentials, were very positive they were followed by a big "but".

Labour's platform so far has been more flexible than the Tories, though it is still not flexible enough for the most determined European integrationists. But this is no longer the mood of the moment. Federalism is generally out of fashion, and shades of Euro-scepticism are breaking out all over the EU. By arguing against major new integration, Mr Blair can hope to pre-empt federalist smears from the Tories back home, which could damage his election chances, while also arguing that his programme is in keeping with the European zeitgeist.

His policies set out so far on Europe have been cautious, to say the least. Labour has said it would accept qualified majority voting in four new areas: industrial, regional, social and environmental policy - but no more. It would accept the social chapter, but will give no new powers to Brussels over justice or immigration policy or defence. On the single currency Labour remains equivocal, but insists that its attitude is more constructive than the Tories'. The decision on European monetary union, says Labour, must be based on an economic assessment of the benefits, nearer the time.

"Labour's attitude to Europe is dramatically different from the Tories," says Pauline Green, leader of the socialist group in the European Parliament. "They want Europe to be a success. The rest of Europe is quite desperate for a Labour government which will take a constructive approach."

Pierre Muscovici, senior adviser to Lionel Jospin, the French socialist leader, agrees that Labour seems far more pro-European than it used to be. But he says, suspiciously: "We don't yet know Blair's attitude to the big questions - on the long-term question of developing European government, he is quiet". Mr Blair may appear to be personally pro-European, but his partners know that Euro-phobe British public opinion could still hold him back. "We are hopeful, but in Germany we are not expecting a sudden 180 degree turn," says Mr Hofman.

There are those, in the most pro-European wing of the Labour Party, who say Mr Blair could even emerge as the new socialist leader for the EU as a whole. But on the Continent it is clear that if Britain does not join EMU, it will remain an outsider. "If Blair is to play this leading role there must be no ambiguity about his pro-European beliefs," says Mr Muscovici.

For his part, Mr Blair goes to Lisbon this week not just to listen to what the others think of him, but to make some demands of them. He wants his socialist partners to take Labour's views on European reform into account, ahead of the British election.

The Lisbon meeting of the Party of European Socialists has been carefully timed, just three weeks before the launch of the IGC in Turin on 29 March. With eight of the EU's 15 member states governed by socialists - though one of their number, Felipe Gonzales, faces defeat in the Spanish election today - what the Lisbon meeting decides will strongly influence the rolling reform conference beginning in Turin. Labour knows it is vital for its voice to be heard at an early stage in the IGC. It may well be a Labour government which will sign the conclusions, at the completion of the conference, in the summer or autumn of 1997 - a general election must be held by April 1997 at the latest.

Another more secret meeting of European socialists also takes place in Brussels next week, in which Robin Cook, who is extremely active on the European stage, will take part. This meeting, largely of finance ministers, will be the first of a series discussing a common socialist strategy on EMU. If Labour wins next year, Mr Blair will almost immediately have to take the decision on whether Britain should join or not. "We need them to take the Labour Party into account. It is no good negotiating without thinking of us. We will be the ones doing the signing, " said a senior Blair aide this week.

There are already signs that Labour is having its voice heard. Inside the Commission itself the party has a key ally in Neil Kinnock. When the Commission debated its programme for the IGC this week, it was Mr Kinnock who led for the two British commissioners, while, significantly, Sir Leon Brittan, the senior partner, kept quiet. Mr Kinnock argued forcefully for the Commission to tone down its more federalist demands - and, say Commission sources, succeeded.

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