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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 17:34 GMT
Blair takes a leaf from Thatcher's book

Margaret Thatcher set Tories' sights on a Europe of sovereign states

By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

Not for the first time, Tony Blair has taken a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book by using a keynote speech in Belgium to try and define his party's view on Europe.

Twelve years ago the then prime minister made her famous Bruges speech which became the bible for Eurosceptics in her own party.

It even spawned a new political group of Tory backbenchers who were opposed to the creation of a United States of Europe.

Over the intervening years the Bruges group went further than Lady Thatcher did in her now famous speech, and many now believe that Tory Eurosceptics want to see Britain out of the EU altogether - something she never advocated.

Tony Blair's speech in Ghent, however, is unlikely to have the same effect on his party as the Bruges speech did on the Tories.

While Margaret Thatcher surprised everyone by setting out a new Tory agenda for Europe, Mr Blair has only restated existed government policy.

And, more significantly, he failed to address the issue of the single currency which is by far the biggest EU-related decision facing Britain in the near future.

In many other ways, however, his speech was remarkably similar to the one given in 1988 by Mrs Thatcher.

Family of nations

Her speech was far less anti-European than it is now regularly portrayed and many of her concerns about the creation of an over arching European superstate have been accepted not only by the Labour party but by other EU states.

She spoke about creating a "family of nations, understanding each other better, appreciating each other more, doing more together but relishing our national identity no less than our common European endeavour" - hardly the anti-European rant it is often now claimed to have been.

The Labour government is as opposed to the creation of a European superstate as Mrs Thatcher was.

And, in Ghent, Mr Blair only talked about the need for Britain to play a central role in a co-operative EU.

He accepted that many of Mrs Thatcher's fears had been justified, but he claimed her Bruges speech had set the Tories on a road that inevitably led to isolation.

And, of course, the entire debate in Europe has moved on from 1988 when the then Commission President Jacques Delors was openly talking about the creation of a United States of Europe.

Few now see that as an immediate objective - particularly with the likely expansion of the EU to take in more of the former Communist countries.

So all Mr Blair did was to remind people that he is a committed European who wants to see the EU states working closely together for their mutual benefit.

It is a sentiment that all but the most hardened anti-Europeans would certainly accept.

In Bruges, Margaret Thatcher declared: "Let us have a Europe which plays its full part in the wider world, which looks outward not inward, and which preserves that Atlantic Community - that Europe on both sides of the Atlantic - which is our noblest inheritance and our greatest strength."

The words could just as easily have come from Tony Blair's mouth in Ghent.

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See also:
23 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
UK destiny in Europe - Blair
23 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Thatcher's Bruges speech
22 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Hague: Blair would rig euro poll

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