EUROPE's future lay in a partnership of nation states, not in a European superstate structure, Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said last night in London.

In the first of a series of speeches, the remainder of which will be delivered in Europe, Mr Rifkind said Europe's past had inspired the belief, passionately held by some, in the federal design. The nation state had failed to protect its citizens, which had led to a conviction that only in supranationality could the evils of nationalism be prevented. He profoundly disagreed, he told the French Chamber of Commerce.

Britain's geographical position at the edge of the European land mass had given us a distinctive perspective, he added. We did not feel instinctively a desire to harmonise our laws and rules with our European neighbour, and we did not and would not believe in a European superstate. ``The future lies between the two poles of federalism or a free trade area,'' he said.

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``Britain's view is that the best future for us all lies in a partnership of nations where Europe concentrates single- mindedly on what needs to be done at a European level and does it well.

``We support co-operation that focuses on lifting the prosperity, quality of life and security of our citizens. It is their interest that should guide us.''

The speech and its successors - which will be delivered over the next six weeks in Stockholm, Bonn, Paris, Brussels and possibly Budapest - will be backed up by radio and newspaper interviews and articles. They add up to a concerted attempt by Mr Rifkind to shape European opinion in the run up to the next inter-governmental conference.

He intends to pose the key question - how far should the process of integration go. Each speech will focus on a different issue, with the limits of integration forming the core of his speech in Stockholm on February 3, and flexibility, how far to accommodate those who want more integration and those who do not, the heart of the Bonn speech later that month.

His aim is to make clear that, for all the differences between Britain and our EU partners, there remains a bedrock of common values.

He wants his message to go wider than the Chancelleries of Europe, since this is a debate for the peoples of Europe, not just for governments ``We see no Manichaean choice between a federal Europe or nothing,'' he said. ``Many people across Europe would agree. Many of us feel that the debate has become too polarised between stark choices of in or out.''

What was needed was a consensus which catered for everyone's wants and needs.