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Monday, 1 July, 2002, 21:54 GMT 22:54 UK
Hain's new EU vision
Peter Hain
Hain says the EU must get its act together

The British Government minister in charge of European policy, Peter Hain, says that the enlargement of the European Union to include 10 new members in 2004 is an "absolute priority".

The EU has to create a capacity to engage in serious diplomacy (and) it can be a force for progressive change, but it is not there yet

Peter Hain
In an interview with BBC News Online, Mr Hain said that the timetable for concluding negotiations by the end of this year "must be stuck to like glue".

However he voiced concern over public apathy regarding the EU, saying: "The lack of public awareness of enlargement is really worrying.

"Reuniting Europe will be one of this generation's greatest achievements, (but) there is a risk that the whole project will go pear-shaped.

"It is within our grasp and we must not let it slip through our fingers."

Hard issues

The negotiations still have to tackle the hard issue of how generous the EU will be to the farmers of the candidate countries and Mr Hain says that the UK "will not allow" the issue of common agricultural policy reform to block the talks.

French farmers burning an animal carcass in protest at EU agricultural policies
EU farm subsidies have generated protests by farmers in the EU

There are some countries, mainly from the south and led by France, which worry that the entry of new members might dilute farm subsidies too much and are therefore putting up roadblocks.

Britain, German and the Netherlands - all net contributors to the EU budget - say that new states must be welcomed but that spending limits already agreed must be respected.

Mr Hain seemed confident that the "Northern Alliance" would prevail.

Hard talking remains to be done, too, on Cyprus, one of the candidate countries.

If there is a no agreement on uniting the island, then the Greek-Cypriot sector (the Republic of Cyprus) will have to enter by itself, something the EU would rather avoid.

It is pressuring Turkey to agree to a settlement.

Gibraltar concerns

Another difficult issue for Mr Hain is Gibraltar.

The British and Spanish foreign ministers are meeting in Madrid on 12 July for a key session.

There is no agreement on the permanence of a deal on shared sovereignty and this, Mr Hain says, is a potential "deal-breaker".

But he thinks that a "form of words" can be found if Spain is "sensitive" regarding the issue.

Two other problems over Gibraltar are the control of the military base, on which Britain insists and Spain's reluctance to accept that the people of Gibraltar should have the final say.

Mr Hain rejects criticism of the United States for being "unilateral".

He says that the EU "has to be a friendly partner to the United States, but to be a powerful voice in Washington, it must get its act together".

'Middle ground'

One policy area in which the EU is being tested right now is the Middle East.

Palestinian man throws missile at Israeli soldiers
Hain says he is 'frustrated' at the lack of credible Palestinian leadership

Some member states are open in their criticism of US President George W Bush's boycott of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The British Government is less so and seems, not for the first time, to be trying to forge a middle position.

Mr Hain says that Mr Arafat is the elected leader and must be dealt with but, as a Palestinian supporter for 30 years, he admits to being "frustrated at the lack of credible leadership".

"The Palestinians will get only a tenth of the deal they were offered at Camp David in 2000," he said.

And he calls for "constitutional change" in the Palestinian Authority so that "there are others we can deal with as well as Arafat".

Testing Euro waters

On the Euro, Mr Hain describes himself as "in favour, provided the economic conditions are met, but not fanatical", and says that the decision on the economic criteria should come by 7 June next year.

If the answer is positive, then a referendum bill will be put to Parliament about four months later and, if that passes, then euro notes and coins will begin to circulate within another 24 to 30 months.

A protestor turned politician, Mr Hain appears a bit frustrated by the slow movement of diplomacy.

"The EU has to create a capacity to engage in serious diplomacy," he says.

"It can be a force for progressive change. But it is not there yet."

When he was active on the streets - against South African apartheid for many years, for example - he expected results quickly, after all that is the nature of protest.

Now he reflects that when he pulls a lever it does not move at once.

But that is the nature of power.

See also:

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14 Jun 01 | Europe
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