Britain, under its new Labour government, has made the first of
a planned series of rapid-fire moves to mend its fences with Europe.
Prime Minister Tony Blair calculates that the Conservative
Party's deep divisions over European policy were the main reason
for its massive defeat in last week's general election.
His officials say he intends to heal wounds that he believes
were inflicted on the European relationship by the outgoing
government led by John Major.
Beginning in 1979, under the Conservative government headed by
former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Britain's relations with
the European Union worsened. As Europe as a whole has moved toward
greater economic integration, Mrs. Thatcher asserted an
increasingly antifederal line toward the EU. Largely because of
this stance, she was ousted as prime minister by her own party.
John Major succeeded Thatcher as prime minister in 1990.
Mr. Major was initially pro-EU. But when Germany raised interest
rates in 1992, it caused a Europe-wide economic tumble that hurt
the value of Britain's currency. This strengthened the stance of
the so-called Euroskeptics among the Conservatives. In addition, an
EU-imposed ban on the sale of British beef in member countries last
spring, due to health concerns, further strained Major's relations
with the EU. It also led to deeper divisions with the Conservative
Party over the EU.
To avoid similar splits within the ranks of the Labour Party,
Mr. Blair is demanding total loyalty from his ministerial team
across the entire policy spectrum. He has even appointed a senior
minister to ensure discipline in government ranks and keep critical
backbench Euroskeptics in line.
Blair dispatched Douglas Henderson, newly appointed minister for
Europe, on a charm offensive to Brussels May 5, with a clear,
"We want to work with you as colleagues in a shared enterprise.
It is time to draw a line under the recent past," Mr. Henderson
told EU ministers long used to hearing British representatives hew
to a stubborn, negative line. A senior German official commented on
the changed British tone: "It was like a breath of oxygen in a
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook plans to visit Bonn and Paris to
tell his German and French counterparts that the Labour government
wants to banish the language of conflict from Britain's relations
with the EU.
Henderson's mission was to clear the way for Britain to sign the
EU's Social Chapter on workers' rights, which for five years the
outgoing Conservative government had rejected.
One of Henderson's officials says Mr. Cook hopes to put
Britain's signature on the Social Chapter "inside two months. …