Saturday, June 25, 2005

A wind of change?

An illustration of how difficult it is to assess the current situation is amply given by two newspapers this morning, the Financial Times and The Times. Reporting on exactly the same issue, the one offers the headline: "Blair's call for overhaul of EU falls on deaf ears", while the latter gives us: "A wind of change starts to blow across Europe."

The FT is unremittingly negative, citing Le Figaro, which notes that economic reforms can only be implemented by national governments rather than by the EU. And, it says, Blair's Third Way is not a model that could be exported to France and Germany because these countries have never experienced the necessary Thatcher revolution first.

France's politicians, the FT also tells us, are still fuming about the way Blair blocked the deal on the budget, stating that, from the French perspective, an achievable deal was wrecked by British intransigence. It then calls in aid Chirac’s Europe minister, Catherine Colonna, who is dismissive of Blair’s rhetoric, saying that his fine words would now be judged by what he could achieve during the UK's EU presidency.

"We will measure the concrete actions of the British presidency and its capacity to deliver common solutions to all of the most pressing questions, such as the EU budget, the social dimension for Europe, and the question of security," she says.

And, although Blair has signalled his willingness to compromise on the rebate the UK, we are told that French analysts suggest it would be near-impossible for Mr Chirac to reciprocate. Weakened by the "no" vote in the referendum, Chirac's position is being further eroded by the polarisation of the political debate ahead of the presidential elections in 2007.

Then, his rival for the presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy, is veering towards a nationalist stance that puts more pressure on Chirac not to compromise. On the left, as well, there is pressure. Laurent Fabius, described as the "intellectual champion of the 'no' vote," is performing a symmetrical trick in trying to mop up votes on the anti-European left.

The FT then quotes François Heisbourg, a political analyst, who says that although Mr Blair's rhetoric was impressive, it was unlikely to win over many minds in Paris. "The basic elements of the Blair agenda are extremely appealing," he says. But there are caveats. "First, does he believe what he is saying? Second, Blair's political credit has been eroded by the Iraq war. Do we now believe what this guy is saying?"

In a much longer piece, The Times retails how "jeers turned to cheers" during his speech to the EU parliament, with one Spanish journalist running out declaring: "I am convinced! He is absolutely right!"

By yesterday morning, says The Times, Blair had become the toast of Europe. Across the EU he is being hailed as the natural leader of the continent: the only man who can save Europe from itself. Italian politicians hailed Blair’s vision of Europe, declaring that a new "Rome-London axis" would provide the driving force of the new EU. Berlusconi is in "total accord" with him and Piero Fassino, leader of the Democrats of the Left, the main opposition party, said that Blair was charting the way for Europe.

The Times choses the left-wing French newspaper LibĂ©ration for its quote on French sentiment, which declares in its headline: "Blair's new deal for Europe." It also picks up "the country’s most influential newspaper", Le Monde, which has backed Blair's demand for a reform of the CAP, calling for the partial renationalisation of farm aid.

Even Germany's "professionally Europhile journalists", according to The Times, are gushing with praise, with the Berliner Zeitung proclaiming Blair the new strongman of Europe. Die Welt has declared: "The British sense of freedom strengthens Europe."

And so on it goes, presenting a wholly different picture to that offered by the FT. But there is a note of reality creeping into The Times's picture, from the unlikely figure of Giscard d'Estaing. He believes that Britain was right to question EU spending, but adds: "there is a difference between winning a battle of ideas and influence, and actually getting reforms."

Furthermore, the paper notes that France, like every other country, retains the veto on any change in farm subsidies. Even if Chirac is no longer president after the 2007 elections, his successor will face the same pressure from French farmers not to cave in. If Frau Merkel wins the German election, she is also likely to be hostage to the Bavarian farming lobby.

The piece concludes with an observation from a British diplomat, who admits: "Things move slowly in Europe. But we can perhaps start the process of reform."

When it comes down to it, therefore, The Times, despite its optimistic headline, ends up close to the FT’s position. Effectively, its "wind of change" is a light summer breeze, not enough to lift a windsock or move a sailboat more than a snail's pace. And soon, if the FT is any guide, that will dissipate and we will end up becalmed. And after the calm, as we all know, comes the storm.

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