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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 17:24 GMT
Blair defends EU summit
Tony Blair with Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Tony Blair hails 'constructive engagement' in Europe.
Prime Minister Tony Blair defended progress at the EU summit at Barcelona after Iain Duncan Smith said it was another case of "fine words and no action".

Mr Blair, giving MPs a progress report, insisted that under his government "the days of weakness and isolation will not return".

He claimed the Conservatives were "totally negative" about Europe after former premier Baroness Thatcher called for a future Conservative government to fundamentally reassess its European strategy.


The truth is that Barcelona was, once again, about fine words from you and no action

Iain Duncan Smith
Tory leader

Lady Thatcher has stopped short of calling for Britain to withdraw from the EU entirely, but said the idea was worthy of consideration.

Mr Duncan Smith, giving his first significant statement on Europe since he became Tory leader, dismissed the conference document as "Euro-waffle".

Alliances

"The truth is that Barcelona was, once again, about fine words from you and no action," he said.

Mr Blair said there had been progress in a number of areas including in financial services due, in large part, to "Britain acting in alliance with others".

He also said there had been progress in opening up of non-domestic energy markets.


Britain is in there, shaping Europe's future, making Europe work in a way that is better for Britain and for Europe

Tony Blair
Prime Minister

Mr Blair told the Commons: "Progress at Barcelona came about in the large part through Britain acting in alliance with others."

Briefing MPs about the opening up of the European energy market, Mr Blair said: "All member states have now agreed fully to open up non domestic markets by 2004 with free and fair competition. This represents 60% of the total market to gas and electricity."

'Constructive engagement'

Mr Blair added that "Britain is in there, shaping Europe's future, making Europe work in a way that is better for Britain and for Europe."

Five years ago, under the Conservatives, such alliances would have been "unthinkable" and Britain was "marginalised".

But Mr Duncan Smith complained that no action had been taken to lift the French ban on British beef, on asylum-seekers and no words of decisive action on Zimbabwe, "just more delay and more talking".

Mr Blair retorted: "As ever you have to be negative about everything to do with Europe."

Iraq action

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said the fact that there was not a clear timetable towards a referendum on British participation in the euro was "holding us back in terms of the diplomatic contribution we can make within Europe".

The two-day meeting ended on Saturday after what Mr Blair described as "limited but solid" progress.

Tony Blair and his Italian counterpart
Tony Blair in discussion with European counterparts
The issue of US intervention in Iraq was not on the official agenda - but officials said Mr Blair had sounded out fellow leaders about the possibility of a US-led attack.

Britain is reportedly at odds with its European allies on the issue of armed intervention in Iraq.

Mr Blair apparently tried to act as a bridge between the EU and US president George Bush, who is determined to halt Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programme.

But German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder signalled he had no intention of participating in any US-led military action against Baghdad.

France has already made its opposition known - saying any assault should have a United Nations mandate.

Mr Blair is also facing opposition from within his own party on Iraq.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Nick Robinson
"Things are moving pretty slowly"
See also:

15 Mar 02 | Europe
Clashes break out at EU summit
18 Mar 02 | UK Politics
A hack's life at EU summits
18 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Thatcher urges 'retreat' from EU
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