Blair's rapport with Berlusconi upsets his old friends on the left

Stephen Castle,Andrew Grice
Saturday 16 June 2001 00:00

Tony Blair moved swiftly to form a three-way alliance with two of Europe's conservative premiers yesterday, taking centre-left EU governments by surprise.

A breakfast meeting with the newly-elected Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, sealed a new partnership which complements Mr Blair's well-established rapport with the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar.

Mr Berlusconi's election, and his partnership with the right-wing Alleanza Nationale, has upset other EU socialist leaders who count the British Labour Party as part of their political club. But an unabashed Mr Blair, fresh from his own election landslide victory, was happy to embrace the controversial millionaire media magnate at the EU summit in Gothenburg yesterday.

Mr Blair's spokesman said: "He looks forward to co-operating with Prime Minister Berlusconi and developing a fruitful relationship." He later added: "The Prime Minister is obviously pleased to have early contact with him and was very keen to hear of his plans for Italy." The spokesman also said that Mr Blair and Mr Berlusconi, who had met before the Italian elections, had found common ground on issues such as economic reform and had also discussed the meeting of G8 leaders in Genoa next month. Yesterday, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, also met his Italian counterpart, Renato Ruggiero.

But Alejandro Agag, an MEP and general secretary of the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, told Spanish journalists that the "BAB" axis ­ Berlusconi-Aznar-Blair ­ would be influential in shaping Europe's future.

Mr Agag, who is a close ally of Mr Aznar and has good links to Mr Berlusconi, said the three men shared a commitment to liberal economics.

He also pointed out that each prime minister has had a recent election victory which would place them in positions of seniority in three years time, when crucial decisions are made over the future of Europe.

Since his first election victory in 1997, Mr Blair has tried hard to forge relationships with several European countries to try to balance the influential Franco-German axis. That has included Mr Aznar, Guy Verhofstadt, the liberal Belgian Prime Minister, and socialists including Sweden's Göran Persson, The Netherland's Wim Kok and Portugal's Antonio Guterres.

A British official said that making such tactical alliances was part of Mr Blair's strategy of "positive engagement" with the EU in order to boost Britain's influence in Europe.

However, signs of a new alliance will raise eyebrows because of accusations of business malpractice against Mr Berlusconi, and because of he has brought a far-right party into his coalition government.

Last year, 14 EU leaders, including Mr Blair, severed political ties with Austria when Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party was included in the government.

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