Magazine article The Spectator

Continental Drift

Magazine article The Spectator

Continental Drift

Article excerpt

Don't say you weren't warned. It was all there in Tony Blair's very first speech as Labour leader.

'Under my leadership, ' he told his Blackpool delegates in 1994, 'I will never allow this country to be isolated or left behind in Europe.' Ponder those words for a moment. There is no hint of conditionality in them. Blair was not arguing that participation in EU initiatives would benefit Britain; rather he saw it as an end in itself: a demonstration that Britain was a modern, outwardlooking country.

Blair's internationalism was of the woollyminded sort that owes more to Lennon than to Lenin: 'Imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do, nothing to kill or die for...' Opposition to the EU, he believed, came from Blimps and boneheads. He was not a Blimp or a bonehead. Therefore the EU must be a good thing. Blair's Europeanism, in other words, was never based on a cost-benefit analysis; it flowed, rather, from his sense of himself as a progressive cosmopolitan. This is, of course, the worst possible frame of mind in which to enter negotiations, as was demonstrated just six weeks into Blair's term of office at the Amsterdam summit.

The Major government had been opposing the extension of EU jurisdiction in environmental and regional policy, criminal justice and the Social Chapter. Blair immediately instructed British officials to drop their objections. He did so, not because he actively favoured an extension of qualified majority voting in these areas, but because he wanted to prove his communautaire credentials.

To be fair, Blair's predecessors had begun the same way. All British leaders trace similar European trajectories: obsequiousness, then exigence, then truculence, then peevishness. They begin by making concessions in the hope of winning influence; then, when they are rebuffed, they become sulky. John Major opened his premiership promising to put Britain 'at the very heart of Europe', but closed it by blocking all EU business in opposition to the beef ban. Margaret Thatcher's first campaign as Conservative leader was for a 'Yes to Europe' in the 1975 referendum; her last was for a 'no, no, no' to the Delors plan for political union.

Tony Blair, too, started off believing that a little goodwill was all that was needed. The other members were overjoyed when, at Amsterdam, he surrendered the competitive advantage that Britain had derived from its opt-out on social and employment policy.

They were stunned when, at St Malo the following year, he reversed the UK's long-standing opposition to a European defence policy outside Nato. Jacques Chirac, who had been prepared to rejoin the Nato command in return, couldn't believe his luck. Being tutoyéd by the overfamiliar youngster was a small price to pay for fulfilling a 40-year-old French dream of European military independence.

In due course, Blair began to look for some payback. Having done everything that was asked of him, he now suggested that the other leaders might like, in return, to abandon their plans for political amalgamation. In a speech in Warsaw in 2000, he essayed a classic piece of New Labour triangulation. On one side, he claimed, were those who wanted nothing but a free market. On the other were the superstaters. In between was his vision of a Europe of collaborating nations, pooling their sovereignty only in limited areas.

His fellow heads of government listened impatiently, and then pushed ahead with their plan for a European constitution. …

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