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At the limits of Europe

Posted by Richard Sunday, June 19, 2005

In the aftermath of the European Council The Sunday Telegraph puts its own spin on events, arguing that:

…it happens, sooner or later, to all British prime ministers. They begin with hopeful talk about putting Britain at the heart of Europe; they end up isolated. It happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1988 when she found herself ambushed over the Delors plans for closer union. It happened to John Major in 1996 over the beef ban. Now it has happened to Tony Blair.
For eight years, the paper says, Mr Blair has made concession after concession to Brussels in the belief that this would win him influence:

He joined the Social Chapter, throwing away Britain's competitive advantage. He reversed the UK's long-standing opposition to an EU military capacity outside Nato. He ratified the Amsterdam and Nice Treaties, discarding the national veto in dozens of areas. He even signed the European Constitution. None of it was enough. Faced with restive electorates, the leaders of Old Europe did what came most naturally: they bashed the Brits. Like Mr Major before him, Mr Blair has learned the hard way that Euro-diplomacy is conducted on the basis of future advantage, not past gratitude.
It may seem strange, the paper continues, "that Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder should have seized on the budget as the weapon with which to belabour the Prime Minister. Mr Blair, after all, had all the advantages. For one thing, Friday's deadline was wholly artificial, so Britain could afford to be relaxed about not reaching a deal."

For another, Mr Blair had the better case: given that the UK is already paying two-and-a-half times as much to Brussels as France, a country of comparable wealth, it was outrageous of Mr Chirac to demand that Britain pay even more, and France less. For a third, Mr Blair has a fresh electoral mandate, while the French and German leaders have the reek of political death on them. Above all, Mr Blair could appeal over the heads of his counterparts to their electorates, who have plainly rejected the European policies of their own leaders.

Yet, from the point of view of Paris and Berlin, the Telegraph says, the summit has been a success. Instead of a painful analysis of the recent "No" votes, there has been a traditional Euro-row with Britain as the spoiler. We can expect more of this. Mr Blair's Euro-optimism has passed its peak. It concludes:

Perhaps Mr Blair will now stop fretting about his communautaire credentials and concentrate on protecting the national interest. Since he is fond of showing off his French to Mr Chirac, he might usefully quote his predecessor, Lord Palmerston. Told once by his French counterpart that the English had no word equivalent to the French sensibilité, Pam replied: "Yes we have: humbug."
Interesting observation – that the "summit" has been a success from the point of view of Paris and Berlin. But I am not sure that Blair has yet had enough of "Europe". He seems to think he has done quite well at the Council so, from "don’t-care-Blair", we may find he has reinvented himself as a born again European.