The social role of the European Union must be renewed, with the help of British trade unions, Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said today.

He told the annual conference of the GMB there had always been a strong social dimension to Europe, creating basic standards in the workplace and equal opportunities legislation.

"That social role must be renewed on the basis of an agenda for access, opportunity and solidarity, a modern social agenda which British trade unions are very well placed to contribute to," he told the Brighton conference.

Mr Mandelson, a GMB member, said he believed support for the EU among Europeans was at its weakest.

"For some, the people I call hyper-globalisers, the EU is irrelevant in an age of fast-moving global markets and international capital. Too bureaucratic, protectionist and obsessed with regulation, they say.

"For others the EU is not doing a good enough job to protect them from global change. The problem for those of us in the middle ground, where the vast majority of people are, is that the attacks of both camps on the EU are weakening one of the key tools we all have, as Europeans, for dealing with globalisation."

Mr Mandelson said the UK was about to enter a critical period of public debate about the EU as discussions intensify on reforms of the union's institutions.

"I hope the pro-EU voice of the union movement will be heard clearly in the months ahead."