Monday, May 16, 2005

A worried Europhile

Wolfgang Munchau, residential columnist for the Financial Times, expresses the view in today's edition that, for Tony Blair, winning the election was the easy bit. His next political fight, the referendum to ratify the EU constitution, he writes, treaty, will be much tougher.

In fact, opines Munchau, it is going to be a "monumental fight". He notes that, in 2003, after five years in Germany, he returned to the UK to be surprised to see how "europhobic" (his word) the country had become.

Previously, the most outspoken eurosceptics were Conservative backbenchers and a few excitable newspaper editorialists. Now they are everywhere. There are few countries in Europe where people tell you - while managing to keep a straight face - that Brussels consists of corrupt bureaucrats who conspire to destroy democracy. Even the business community has turned eurosceptic. It is very difficult to wage the battle for Europe without the support of the business community.

To win the fight, Blair will have to reverse a trend towards euroscepticism that has lasted for more than a decade and made a deep and lasting impact. He will have to do something few British politicians have done before - make a positive case for the EU, to say why the UK needs an effective EU to help solve the political and economic challenges of the 21st century - whether they are wars, terrorism, economic shocks, immigration, the reduction of greenhouse gases, or others we do not know about yet.

If this argument is accepted, says Munchau, then surely it will be reasonable to approve a constitution whose goal it is to render an enlarged EU more effective. But if it is not, then there will be little point in remaining a member of this club. The stakes are high.

But the great columnist is not sure whether the "yes" camp in the UK would be capable of running or be willing to run such a highbrow campaign. But even if they were, it may still not be enough. The "no" campaign has the advantage that it reflects the national eurosceptic mood. As happened in France, this may also turn into a domestic political battle: vote No and get rid of Blair. Considering that most political commentators expect the prime minister to step down if he loses, this might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another factor that does not help Blair is the persistent internal divisions within the EU - about economic policy, transatlantic relations and the EU budget. The last thing he needs is a dogfight with Chirac over the British budget rebate. Chirac has already said that the rebate can no longer be defended.

All that said, concludes Munchau, one should never take the outcome of a referendum for granted. But make no mistake about the task ahead. The defeat of euroscepticism will require time, determination and luck. Mr Blair may be a lucky man. He is also determined, but less so when it comes to Europe. And there is not much time left.

And there speaks the informed Europhile. He seems to be worried.

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