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Europe: EU Welcomes British Labor's Victory

Prague, 2 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - European Union officials and national leaders have welcomed yesterday's overwhelming victory of Britain's Labour Party as a clear sign of a decline in traditional British anti-EU sentiment.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the vote showed Britons were less susceptible to anti-EU arguments, made largely during the campaign by the defeated Conservative Party. On a tour of Pacific nations, Kohl told reporters Labour's triumph showed, in his words, that "voters did not like the anti-European rhetoric of the past few weeks, and this should be a lesson for all those who seek to win votes with anti-European polemics."

French President Jacques Chirac congratulated Labour leader Tony Blair for what he termed his "brilliant success," saying he was confident that France and Britain could now together "confront the coming (EU) deadlines." Chirac's Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, hailed Labour's victory as what he described as "a step back for British Euro-skepticism."

Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene and his Dutch counterpart Wim Kok also welcomed Tony Blair's election. Dehaene told Blair he was "looking forward to a new cooperation with you and our EU colleagues that will make a success of the Union's Inter-Governmental Conference..." Kok spoke of his new hope for what he called "positive results" at the conference.

The EU's IGC, begun 14 months ago, is due to conclude at a summit meeting in Amsterdam in just over six weeks' time. It is mandated to reach consensus on basic EU institutional reforms necessary before the 15-nation group can begin to negotiate with 11 new candidates for membership, ten of them from Central and Eastern Europe. So far, however, the IGC has made little progress --and many have blamed that on outgoing British Prime Minister John Major's minimalist stance toward further EU integration. .

But Blair is likely to have an even earlier EU deadline to meet than mid-June in Amsterdam. Early last month, EU foreign ministers agreed to hold a special one-day, pre-Amsterdam summit meeting on institutional reforms three weeks from today. British journalists at the time called the planned get-together a "get-to-know-Tony-Blair meeting."

Out of deference to Blair and to Major, the summit was not formally announced before the British election. Today Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo of the Netherlands, which currently holds the EU's revolving presidency, put the summit officially on the EU's agenda. He said it would be held at the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk, would be actually only a half-day long and "very informal," and would cover key unresolved issues at the IGC. Van Mierlo also said he knew that the Labour party had been quite critical of EU integration in the past, but hoped the election result would give the Union, in his phrase, "more room for consensus on the road we are taking."

In Brussels, EU officials --who requested anonymity-- expressed joy at the size of Labour's victory yesterday. They told our correspondent by telephone that Blair's two-thirds majority in the House of Commons would make him far less beholden to Euro-skeptics in his party than was Major, who governed with a very slim majority in the past year. Most of the officials said they hoped --some said they believed-- that meant Blair would be more amenable than Major on critical sovereignty issues.

EU officials also noted that Blair had committed himself to subscribing to the EU's so-called social chapter, which guarantees minimum workers' rights throughout the Union. They also underlined Blair's campaign statements promising that Britain would become a leader in the EU again.

But British "leadership," the officials acknowledged, does not necessarily mean agreeing with a majority of EU members that would like to push internal integration even further than did the Maastricht Treaty signed six years ago. They admit, too, that Blair's precise stand on important proposals for EU institutional reform is not yet clear. They say that is likely to emerge at Noordwijk on May 23.