Cook is preparing Labour to play a stronger role in Europe


Britain's shadow foreign secretary shows a different emphasis from the Tories in his dealings wit the EU, write Edward Mortimer and John Kampfner


--(Financial Times Service)

IF Labour takes office after the British general election, will Britain's partners in the EU notice much difference?

Many commentators have been warning them not to expect too much: Labour is, like the Conservatives, unlikely to sign up for the single currency in 1999, and is hardly less determined than the Tories to preserve Britain's frontier controls and its veto on key decisions.

However, Mr Robin Cook suggests that Labour, while remaining cautious on EMU and certain other changes, will be able to expose the narrow nationalism of the Tories as having undermined Britain's interests.

Besides signing up to the social chapter, Labour supports the 48-hour working week directive as well as chapters proposed by Sweden and other member states on employment and "sustainable development". It also favours strengthening the European parliament.

Of most immediate interest will be Mr Cook's recognition of the case for modernising the EU's institutions. He claims to have different positions from the Conservatives on most of the issues in the current Inter-Governmental Conference, and believes, on the basis of intensive contacts with Labour's "sister parties" (in government in 11 of the 14 other EU states) that Labour would be able to conclude the conference and sign a new treaty in June, even if it only comes to power in May.

But on the proposed "flexibility" clause he speaks of an "unholy alliance" between arch integrationists and those who want to row back. "If Europe was to divide into a core Europe of nations always on the inside track and a Britain which was always an offshore island, we would very rapidly find that we were frozen out of decision making," he says.

He also remains firm on the retention of the national veto on "strategic" decisions such as those affecting the EU budget, treaty amendments or enlargement. And he insists that majority voting has no place in the second and third pillars" - foreign and security policy, and justice and home affairs policy.

He accepts the need for an extension of qualified majority voting to new areas as the EU enlarges, pointing out that the same logic applies as in the Single European Act.

Mr Cook is well known to be more sceptical than Mr Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, about joining EMU in 1999. It is not impossible, he says, but there are "formidable difficulties" which if anything "have been made more formidable by last week's statement by the government that they have given up doing the preparatory work".

As foreign secretary, Mr Cook would find himself chairing most important EU meetings, as the UK holds the presidency in the first half of 1998 when the crucial decisions on EMU have to be taken. Giving perhaps the strongest hint of how he believes the decision will go, he says he has already discussed this problem with other member states, some of whom told him they saw "some advantages in having a neutral chairman on single currency issues".