Home

Tony Blair and Europe

Simon Berlaymont
30 May 2007

Among the pro-European majority that lives on the other side of the Channel, Tony Blair is regarded with envy and disappointment. Envy because in spite of everything he is still seen as the most talented and charismatic of European leaders of his time. Like many notable leaders at the end of their term he is more admired abroad than at home. Disappointment because they had hoped for more from the most pro-European British leader anyone will see for some time. And yet both Britain and Europe are different because of Blair, and, in spite of the disappointment, both are the better for him.

The incoming Labour government in 1997 was more European in its outlook than its predecessor. That is no surprise: most new governments arrive determined not to make the mess of Europe their predecessors did. Foreign ministers applauded spontaneously when Lord Carrington set out the new Conservative government's approach in 1979. John Major meant it when he said that he wanted Britain to be at the heart of Europe. But by that time his government was tired and his party divided.

Tony Blair arrived strong and with a modernising agenda that seemed to put Europe at the heart of Britain as much as the other way round. He was the first prime minister from the post-war generation; his memories were not of defending Britain against evil Germans and feckless French. New Labour was built on respect for German social policy and French economic success. He spoke French well and had already established some good relationships on the continent, notably with Helmut Kohl. A positive approach to Europe was part of his party's platform.

Simon Berlaymont is a pseudonym. The writer has extensive professional knowledge of the inner workings of the European Union. Also by Simon Berlaymont in openDemocracy: "What the European Union is" (23 June 2005)

A benign rupture

Where did it go wrong? Well, in the first place it didn't all go wrong. Blair leaves behind him one lasting landmark in Europe and many useful achievements.

The latter include a couple of treaty negotiations, Amsterdam and Nice, without the turmoil and angst that had always gone with such occasions in the past - not much of an achievement for anyone else, but for Britain something new.

At Amsterdam it was notable that, rather than fight every comma - the Thatcher/Major practice - Blair was tough on the few issues that mattered, and made deals on the secondary points, behaving, that is, much as other countries do. In passing he dropped the United Kingdom's opt-out from the social chapter, a useful step in the normalisation of the British position in Europe (and one which seems to have passed without any of the terrible results forecast by the Conservative Party).

The summit which finalised the Nice treaty is still remembered as one of the most awful summits of all time, but none of the complaints relate to the British position. It was the awfulness of Nice in fact that persuaded Blair that European institutions needed to be reformed - hence his later espousal of the idea of a permanent chair for the European council.

This also marks Blair off from his predecessors. The normal British approach is to say that there is no need to interfere with European institutions: we should concentrate instead on getting the policy right, reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the like, and let the institutions look after themselves. This has served Britain badly. It fails to recognise that European institutions do need reform: to adjust to enlargement, to reflect the evolution of the union and new priorities - such as crime and terrorism. In the minds of most of its members the EU is a project which remains unfinished and needs to develop further. Prime ministers who do not see this and go into treaty revision negotiations with a purely defensive agenda not only miss the opportunity to shape Europe but give an image of Britain as a grumpy and negative member of the union. At the very least Blair's approach to treaty revision - aided perhaps by the fact that he and Gordon Brown were in the process of revising the UK's constitution at the same time - made him seem more like a normal European.

A litany of progress

A second achievement, big in some ways, small in others, was "the Lisbon agenda". This might be portrayed as Euro-Blairism: putting at the centre of the European agenda the need to reconcile social protection with a dynamic, market-driven economy. This again was an admirable example of Blair behaving as one of his more influential colleagues might have done, using Europe to push his domestic programme. The method by which he tackled this was exemplary: hardly a single colleague was omitted from a series of bilateral summits accompanied by joint initiatives, articles, letters, statements. Everyone was bound in, above all Gerhard Schrőder who briefly espoused the Neue Mitte as a German version of the Third Way.

The theme was intelligent, the tactics well executed; the trouble is that little was achieved. The European Union has set itself a series of pompous goals - making Europe the most competitive economy in the world by 2010 - but there is no evidence of significant changes in any county's domestic policies as a result. The whole process (which still goes on) became bureaucratised and rather sovietesque in its setting of targets and quotas, and also in its results. This contrasts for example with the transformative impact of monetary union and the single market.

We might note in passing meanwhile that a radical reform of the CAP has taken place - in which UK pressure over the years has played a part (where have the beef- and butter-mountains gone?) But if you listen to the speeches of UK ministers, including sometimes the prime minister, no one seems to have noticed. Strange: they ought to be hailing it as a triumph for British policy.

The most important collective achievement of the EU during the Blair years has been enlargement. If anything is remembered in European history it is likely to be the EU's achievement in stabilising central and eastern Europe after the end of communism. That Britain played a leading part in this goes without saying: British politicians have always been in favour of enlargement, some with the (mistaken) hope that of a larger and looser union, some to relativise Franco-German dominance, some because it was the only thing they could find to be positive about in Europe. In the case of Blair there is no need to attribute negative motives; in this and in Nato enlargement he was motivated by a strategic vision. Britain played a leading part, as did Germany.

Also on the legacy of Tony Blair in openDemocracy:
Roger Scruton, "Tony Blair's genius"(18 December 2006)
Norman Fairclough, "Tony Blair and the language of politics"(20 December 2006)
Felix Blake, "Blair's foreign-policy legacy"(21 December 2006)
Brian Brivati, "The Blair audit: war, human rights, liberalism"(8 January 2007)
Tina Beattie, "Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)
Tony Curzon Price, "Tony Blair and centralisation"(20 February 2007)
Godfrey Hodgson, "London and Washington: Tony Blair's special relationship"(5 March 2007)

 

More exceptional is the case of Turkey. Here Britain had a special role in relaunching the idea of Turkish accession (at the Helsinki summit of December 1999), then in keeping it alive, and finally in getting the negotiations started. In the last of these it was the personal stubbornness of Jack Straw that finally won the day.

This was one of the important results of the second UK presidency under Blair. Another was the budget settlement. Some in Europe would probably say that this hardly counts as an achievement since it was the UK that created the obstacle to a deal which it than removed, enabling a settlement. This satisfies the natural preference for blaming others - and the British have been willing victims - but it does not reflect a much more interesting reality.

One part of this is the incendiary nature of European budgetary matters in UK domestic politics. The sensible compromise which Blair proposed, almost certainly against the advice of the chancellor/treasury, leaves both Europe and the UK in good shape. The skilful diplomatic operation that brought the solution about was secretly admired by the Brussels professionals. This was then backed by a bravura Blair presentation in the European parliament in which he argued that the British rebate was the other side of the coin for the way in which the CAP dominated EU spending. The parliament applauded him as enthusiastically as they had earlier when Jean-Claude Juncker attacked him. But it was Blair who solved the problem. It would be nice if, in the UK, this might have laid to rest the idea, stemming from Margaret Thatcher's iconic struggles, that compromise on budgetary matters is always wrong. It is also worth remarking that here as in other areas Blair was part of a pro-European minority in the cabinet (his most solidly pro-European supporters - Peter Mandelson, Charles Clarke and Robin Cook were all gone by then).

The UK presidency was also notable for the useful special summit at Hampton Court, which put energy on the European agenda, at the level where it belongs. The fruits of this will not be apparent for some time to come - energy as well as Europe is a long-term business - but the rewriting of UK energy policy in European terms may (we should hope) be an important part of the Blair legacy.

A new road

The most important bequest is already visible, though like much else remains incomplete. (It is in the nature of things that big changes take time). This is the possibility of a real foreign and security policy for Europe, effectively launched by Blair and Chirac at St Malo in their September 1998 summit. Without a security dimension - the ability to deploy forces - and without the machinery that the deployment of forces requires, namely a standing committee for political consultation, there is no foreign policy.

This was one lesson of Europe's failures in the Balkans in the early 1990s. At that moment Europe found itself facing a security crisis too near to home - both geographically and emotionally - to ignore. Nato was unavailable because the United States was not interested. "We don't have a dog in that fight", then secretary of state James A Baker was reported to have said. It is also questionable whether Nato would have been able to bring together the political and economic pressures and incentives that were required, in addition to the military. The EU however had no way of deploying military force itself, nor of engaging seriously in political business: monthly meeting of senior officials from capitals are not capable of handling crises.

The Blair/Chirac proposals at St Malo were not just about giving the European Union a rapid-reaction force. They opened the possibility of the EU becoming a real political actor in international affairs. The pre-St Malo situation was well illustrated by the debates on Yugoslavia. These were overwhelmingly about trade preferences - keeping out Yugoslav sour cherries and raspberries - even at a time when the political system there was breaking apart.

Behind foreign policy, ultimately, there always lies the possibility of force. A foreign policy without this possibility is only half a policy, or less. So long as Nato remained the only forum for collective military efforts, and so long as Nato is dominated by the US, European effectiveness and independence in foreign policy would always have limits.

The new road opened by Blair and Chirac leads, potentially, a long way. Not to a Europe which is hostile to the US - this is unthinkable - but to one which is a more integrated and more independent and therefore a better partner for America. The St Malo ideas were embodied in the Nice treaty. Since then the European Union has built up machinery for dealing with political and military questions on a daily basis, including a modest military staff. It has undertaken four military missions, two in the Balkans and two in the Congo - one of these may have prevented serious bloodshed. In addition to this, and not foreseen at St Malo, the EU has also undertaken a whole series of non-military missions in crisis areas including the monitoring of the peace settlement in Aceh and the border crossing at Rafah (between Gaza and Egypt). It is now contemplating the possibility of a major administrative and rule-of-law assistance mission in Kosovo as well as a police-training mission in Afghanistan. In a relatively short time the St Malo initiative has been fruitful in many, often unanticipated ways.

An unwise promise

There is still some way to go before the European Union is capable of taking a place among other continental-scale actors. But these developments are as important in their way as the euro. Any pro-European Briton should be proud of Blair's personal role in them.

Britain being generally a grouchy place, most will probably prefer to remember what they see as Blair's principle sin of omission: the failure to join the euro early in the first term when it seemed as if the prime minister could walk on water and the people would follow him. You cannot be out of the euro and be at the heart of Europe - as Blair always understood. In his own terms therefore, this was a failure. It is nevertheless one we should understand. The previous Labour government collapsed in a series of economic disasters, leaving New Labour with the need to demonstrate financial responsibility. Would it have been wise to risk all on the euro, which was highly contested domestically and which fitted the UK's economic position particularly badly at the moment of decision (at the time the UK was close to overheating and European economies were tending towards recession)?.

Arguably the UK's interest-rate structure (a high proportion of variable-rate mortgage lending) would make it a difficult case at any time. The fact that the UK has prospered outside the eurozone does not make it easier to argue that this was a terrible mistake. The domestic economic success of New Labour has since become a factor against the prime minister's ambitions for Britain in Europe: it is difficult to argue for adopting the euro when the UK economy seems to be doing better than that of the eurozone. And even more difficult to change the psychology in Britain: that we turn to Europe as a remedy for British failure rather than a way to enhance success. If Britain had joined the euro then eurozone interest rates would have been higher by half a point or more over the period; this would not necessarily have been good for other members.

What was a mistake and what does deserve to be criticised was the commitment to a referendum on joining the euro. Clearly a debate would have been needed; and probably it would have been wrong to take such a decision against widespread and determined opposition. But that is what parliament and election campaigns are for. Why should the machinery of monetary policy be subject to a popular vote when less complicated questions such as capital punishment are not? This is a failure in constitutional policy rather than in European policy, but that it should come on these issues illustrates the poisonous nature of the European debate in Britain.

The virus of referenda is contagious. Blair caught it from a weak and divided Conservative Party that needed to avoid the responsibility for taking decisions itself. Later he found himself too weak to resist when they called for a referendum on the constitutional treaty. There is some irony in the espousal of referenda by the Eurosceptics: the basic constitutional principle in Britain is the supremacy of parliament, with no procedural distinction between constitutional and other law. Referenda are more associated with continental countries, and then not always with their most democratic moments. The virus then spread to France and the Netherlands; in France in particular it was always going to difficult to resist calls for a popular vote on something calling itself a constitution, and Blair's decision in Britain made it impossible.

This was also the result of collective European hubris. For once the UK was right in arguing that this was not a constitution and should not be called one. Jack Straw's line that golf clubs also have constitutions was clever but it did not respond to the real point: golf clubs do not try to pretend that they are states - which was what the more ambitious members of the EU were about when they named the treaty a "constitution". One of the difficulties with the European Union is that even its friends do not well understand what it is - which is perhaps not surprising since it is still in the making. But this does not make it easy to explain, or a good subject for referenda. Its opponents on the other hand are all too certain they know what it is, and they do not want it (see Simon Berlaymont, "What the European Union is" (23 June 2005).

The balance-sheet

Blair's biggest European failure came also with a moment of hubris, primarily American. He too was also seduced by the glamour of power and the illusion of influence, just as his European colleagues were trapped by their desire to make the EU into something grander than it was. Iraq is the great failure of foreign policy under Blair; but it is also a failure of European policy.

At the heart of this failure is the unwillingness to take Europe seriously as a place to make foreign policy. The only way of standing up to America, of taking an independent line in classical foreign policy as well as in areas such as trade, is through the European Union. This requires a change of psychology on the part of Britain - which has never thought much about standing up to the US in the first place. A united European position on Iraq might have had a chance of persuading the US either not to invade until the case on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had been proved (ie, as it turned out, never) or to have handled the campaign less incompetently. Perhaps not, of course. Perhaps there was no possibility at all of influencing the US in its hysterical, fearful, hubristic, mood at that time. What is certain is that Britain on its own had no influence; likewise France also on its own. And Europe divided had none either.

A joint policy by Britain and France might have had a chance of setting a different, more responsible and more influential, course for both countries and for Europe. The blame belongs in the Elysée as well in Downing Street (both have implicitly recognised their failure by handling Iran in a strikingly different fashion). But the real failure is deeper.

Unless Europe is conceived of as the place where foreign policy is made (Peter Riddell in his excellent chapter in The Blair Effect makes the point that the existence of separate advisers on foreign policy and European affairs in Downing Street tends to reinforce the idea that Europe is about technical matters and foreign policy takes place on a grander stage elsewhere); unless it is equipped with the machinery and the habits of mind and of action to cope with real crises - then it will always be easiest to revert to national escapism: grandstanding Gaullism in France, subservience to American power in Britain. Blair himself, with Chirac, began building that machinery at St Malo; the next stage (the creation of a jointly owned foreign service) was set in the constitutional treaty. This is slow and often tedious work but it remains the only way to a serious foreign policy.

As Geoff Mulgan commented on leaving Downing Street, governments overestimate what they can change in the short term and underestimate what they can change in the long term. But the constant theme in Blair's speeches of Britain at the centre of a network of relationships, of which Europe is an important element but always mentioned co-equally with the United States, suggests that in the end the vision of a European alternative may never have been there in the first place.

Blair himself may see his greatest failure on Europe as the failure to create a pro-European public in Britain. In fact opinion polls suggest that opinion has become more anti-European during his term of office. To reverse this would be a Herculean task under the best of circumstances, given the difficulty of explaining the importance of Europe to people who have lost their sense of history, and the distortions they are daily fed by the press. Perhaps this failure, crucial though it is, should not be taken too hard, since Britain is by no means unique in this respect. Such levelling down elsewhere may not be entirely undesirable if it means a more realistic view of what Europe is and what it can be; but it would be better if it were matched by some levelling up on the part of Britain.

Here the news is perhaps not uniformly bad. Away from the press and the opinion polls the visitor to Brussels today would be struck by the degree to which, in contrast to the 1980s and early 1990s, Britain operates as a normal European country, difficult at times - but then that is true of all the larger countries - but no longer automatically the awkward squad. In a world where lasting results are always achieved slowly, this may not be not such a bad record after all.

Expose the ‘dark money’ bankrolling our politics

US Christian ‘fundamentalists’, some linked to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, have poured at least $50m of ‘dark money’ into Europe over the past decade – boosting the far right.

That's just the tip of the iceberg: we've got many more leads to chase down. Find out more and support our work here.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram