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Blair Urges Fundamental Debate on Future of Europe


Prime Minister Tony Blair got a taste of what may be in store when he arrives in Brussels Thursday for a two-day crisis summit of European leaders. In Britain's House of Commons, Mr. Blair faced a string of angry questions regarding the country's place in Europe and what should be done about the derailed European constitution process.

Tony Blair took a battering during Prime Minister's Question Time Wednesday. The main opposition Conservative party accused him of vacillation over Europe and of now shelving ratification of the EU constitution following its defeat in France and in the Netherlands.

Mr. Blair in turn said the Conservatives' ultimate goal was to get Britain out of Europe, a claim rejected by opposition leader, Michael Howard.

The prime minister talked about a time of reflection for Europe to figure out collectively how to move forward.

"I think there is a clear understanding now in Europe that there needs to be a far more fundamental debate about the future of Europe. Fortunately, since Britain has a government that is not Euro-skeptic but believes in Britain at the center of Europe, we are in a position, we are in the right position to play a good part in that debate," he said.

Mr. Blair repeated his view that fighting for Britain's interests, from what he characterized as a pro-European position, is right for the country.

He also singled out globalization as a leading issue that demands a united voice from Europe. Mr. Blair says trade restrictions would be counter-productive.

"We are in favor of a free and liberal approach to that. We believe that we should welcome the competition and invest in skills and education in order to meet it. Others believe that we should try and protect ourselves through regulation. I do not think that is the right way to go. The second debate is about the transatlantic alliance. Is our main alliance still with America? Again, there is a debate about that," he said. "Then I think that if we start to answer these debates and forge a consensus on the political direction in Europe, then some of these other issues become easier to manage."

Britain's multi-billion dollar annual rebate from the EU is one issue that could leave the prime minister extremely exposed and isolated. Other EU nations want to abolish the rebate, which helps make up the considerable shortfall between Britain's contributions to the European Union budget and the money it receives.

In recent days, Mr. Blair said he would consider re-evaluating the rebate, only in the context of an overall sweeping review of all European finances, but that seems unlikely to gain much support from other member states at the present time.

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