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Blair failed in Europe, will Brown do better?

Article by Dick Leonard

September 15, 2006

On the face of it, the changeover – now virtually certain by June at the latest – will be a marked set-back for the EU. Gone will be a man often described as “the most pro-EU British Prime Minister since Edward Heath”

In will come the man reputed to have blocked British adoption of the euro, who is known mostly in Brussels for his periodic descents on the Ecofin council, where he insensitively lectures his fellow finance ministers on how much better the British government is in running its economy.

If these impressions were the whole story it would indeed be a bleak day for the EU when Brown replaces Blair. In fact, both are caricatures, which conceal as much as they reveal.

To begin with, Blair has not been nearly such a positive influence in practice, as seemed likely when he arrived on the European scene in 1997, bursting with charm and determined to repair the bad relations which had built up during the Thatcher and Major years.

His intentions were good, but despite his large parliamentary majority and his enormous popularity, he failed to take the necessary steps to end the semi-detached status of Britain’s EU membership. Above all, he funked the opportunity of putting British entry into the euro to a referendum during his first honeymoon period, when it would have had an optimum chance of being approved.

He allowed himself to be deterred by the avalanche of lies and distortions which appeared – and still appear – in Britain’s Europhobic tabloid press. He was certainly annoyed when Gordon Brown insisted on linking British entry to a series of phoney economic tests, but did not attempt to over-rule him, and Britain now seems further away from adopting the euro than when he first became Premier over nine years ago.

Blair also profoundly disappointed most of his European allies during the discussions leading up to the adoption of the European constitutional treaty. Both during the Convention, and the later IGC, the British government’s contribution was almost entirely negative, advancing a series of ‘red lines’ to protect British veto powers over a wide range of legislative fields.

He then, quite unnecessarily, gave way to pressure from the Europhobic press to hold a referendum over the treaty, which indirectly led to the French and Netherlands governments doing the same, with the dire consequences with which we are all familiar.

Blair set out to provide a ‘bridge’ between the EU and the US. In fact, whenever there was any conflict between the two, he invariably sided with the US, with fatal consequences, most notoriously over Iraq and more recently over Lebanon. This not only destroyed the possibility of a united EU response, but also Blair’s reputation in his own country, which accounts for the desperate situation in which he now finds himself.

Would Brown – a less obviously pro-EU politician – have done any better, and will he prove a better European partner in the future? The key probably lies in the character differences between the two men. Brown lacks Blair’s ready charm, but is a more thoughtful, sober and pragmatic politician, with a strong social conscience.

Whereas Blair, like Bush, is a ‘born-again Christian’ liable to be led into sudden enthusiasms which he follows with too little regard to their likely consequences, Brown, whose father was a Presbyterian minister, has more deeply engrained beliefs, and a much more cautious approach.

He will defend perceived British interests stubbornly, but probably more realistically than Blair, and may well build up a good working relationship with other pragmatists, such as Angela Merkel (with whom he got on well during their meeting in July) and, conceivably also with Nicholas Sarkozy, or with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the front-runner to be Prime Minister if Ségolène Royal is elected as French president.

He could thus become a central figure in a Franco-German-British triumvirate, which would have a powerful influence on the future development of Europe. Life with Brown will not be easy, but it could be more fulfilling than many Europeans now fear.

Dick Leonard is the author of A Century of Premiers: Salisbury to Blair (Palgrave-Macmillan).

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