Clean Slate: Britain and Europe: A New Start

Article excerpt

BY ROBIN COOK

Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Britain's foreign policy has changed dramatically since New Labour came to power on May 2, 1997. We have pushed human rights up our foreign policy agenda, strengthened our relationship with the Islamic world, toughened our stance on war criminals in Bosnia, and helped broker the agreements on climate change in Kyoto and Buenos Aires.

But the most fundamental change has been the transformation of our relationship with Europe. After two decades of sniping from the sidelines, Britain is back as a positive and dynamic player in the European Union. We recognize the tremendous opportunity that Europe represents, and are determined to take full advantage of it. This means engaging and trying to shape Europe rather than just blocking discomforting initiatives. The new government plays its part free from the neuroses that destroyed its past relations with the continent. We do not believe that there is a federalist plot to destroy the nation-state and replace it with some sort of European super-state ruled from Brussels.

So we support European integration where it is practical; coordinated European action is beneficial to all. But we also believe that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people they affect. There is a widespread feeling in Europe that the European Union has become too removed from its people. If we are to win back faith of Europe's citizens, we need to make Europe more relevant to them and their concerns. Additionally, the US-British relationship is strengthened by Britain's engagement and influence within Europe. The way of defending and promoting British interests in Europe is not to marginalize ourselves, but to win the trust of our European partners.

The Euro

The new attitude has helped propel Britain back where it belongs, at the center of the European stage, as a dynamic European partner. But a crucial question remains: how can Britain be at the center of Europe when it has not adopted the euro? Economic and monetary union is the most profound development in Europe for many years. Britain has not yet joined it, but supports it. We were proud to have steered the key decisions during the British presidency of the European Union last year. For the first time, Europe now knows that the British government shares the objective of a successful single currency. For the first time, Britain has expressed its support for the principle of monetary union, and has stated there is no constitutional barrier to Britain joining it.

Our position is quite clear: we want the single currency to succeed. But for economic reasons, it was not in Britain's interest to join the single currency at its launch. To join at the start would be to accept a monetary policy which suited other European economies but not our own. We need a period of settled convergence before we can join. In order to create a real option of joining early in the next Parliament, we are starting a period of intensive preparation. There is a new attitude underpinning Britain's approach to the euro and Europe that has put us back in the mainstream of the European debate. But other developments are also helping Britain become a leading player in the continent.

Enlargement

Britain is playing a key role in the European Union's enlargement. The end of the Cold War offered us the chance to reunite our continent and recreate a common European home. We are taking that chance. We have launched an Accession Process that includes ten countries in Central and Eastern Europe. We want to see them all join, as soon as they are ready. But before joining they must have a properly functioning democratic government, a tolerant society that respects human rights and the rights of minorities, and an economy that can survive the rigors of the world's largest single market. We have given them substantial assistance to help prepare them for membership. …