Britain's new government will work to increase the country's influence in the European Union and strengthen ties with emerging economic giants Brazil, India and China, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Thursday.
In what was billed as his first major speech since taking office in May, Hague accused the previous Labour government of failing to wield influence in the EU and said its efforts to build relations with emerging powers had been patchy.
"The idea that the last government was serious about advancing Britain's influence in Europe turns out to be an unsustainable fiction ... We are determined to put this right," Hague told diplomats at the Foreign Office.
Labour foreign affairs spokesman David Miliband derided Hague's assertions, noting the Conservatives left the main centre-right group in the European Parliament last year.
"The idea that this coalition will bring renewed influence to the European Union ... is just plain wrong," he said.
Hague said the number of senior British officials in the EU's executive Commission had fallen by a third since 2007 and Britain was sharply under-represented at junior official level.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition formed after Britain's May 6 election has worked constructively with its European partners so far, surprising some European diplomats who had expected a more Eurosceptic stance.
The centre-right Conservatives were forced to tone down their tough line on Europe as part of the coalition deal they reached with the centre-left, pro-European Lib Dems.
DIVISIONS OVER EUROPE
Europe has long been an explosive issue in British politics. Eurosceptic rebels almost brought down the last Conservative government, headed by John Major, in 1992.
Hardline Eurosceptic Conservatives in parliament are keeping a low profile for now but analysts think European tensions could erupt at some point, potentially jeopardising the coalition.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed a diplomatic triumph last November when he secured the EU's top foreign policy job for Briton Catherine Ashton, but she ran into sharp criticism from other member states over her initial performance.
Hague, a Conservative, said there would be a new stress on building relations with key emerging economies.
"The real economic action in the world has been taking place in Brazil and India and China and the Gulf states and those are the places to which we have to connect ourselves much more strongly than we have ever tried to do before," Hague said in a BBC radio interview.
Hague said the war in Afghanistan, where Britain has 9,500 troops, remained the coalition's top foreign policy priority.
But he said British diplomats would also play a crucial role in supporting Britain's economy, slowly recovering from a deep recession.
"In the coming months, we will develop a national strategy for advancing our goals in the world ... that is consciously focused on securing our economic prosperity for the future," Hague said.
The coalition is proposing deep cuts in public spending to reduce a record peacetime budget deficit. Promoting British exports is likely to be key to boosting economic growth.
Hague said the coalition had launched a joint task force with the United Arab Emirates as part of efforts to increase links with the Gulf. Britain would also make a special effort to work with Turkey, whose foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, is due to visit Britain next week, he said.