Magazine article The Spectator

Margaret Thatcher Would Have Relished the Helsinki Challenge; Tony Blair Is Close to Panic

Magazine article The Spectator

Margaret Thatcher Would Have Relished the Helsinki Challenge; Tony Blair Is Close to Panic

Article excerpt

A glance at the headlines might suggest a typical British build-up to a European summit. Led by Lady Thatcher, the Eurosceptics are denouncing the government for cowardice. In response, ministers are insisting that they are prepared to use their veto. In response to that, the Europeans are becoming audibly irritated. Yet again, the government seems trapped, unable to decide whether to appease its domestic critics or its European partners. Yet again, it will end up by satisfying neither. Tony Blair is in a hole, but that is his own fault. He dug it.

Almost as soon as he became leader of the Labour party, Mr Blair assured European governments that he would be the first prime minister since Ted Heath to be a devout European. He would not only say that Britain should be at the heart of Europe; he would mean it, and he would join the single currency. On that, he would need to sort out some little local difficulties, but no one should doubt his commitment. It was a matter of when, not whether.

That was how Tony Blair used to talk, and he did not confine himself to practicalities. The Europeans believe that Eurobuilding is a moral project: one reason why they are so intolerant towards dissidents. A high moral tone comes easily to Mr Blair; he had no difficulty in convincing the Europeans that he was sincere. Hence their current disillusion with Britain.

As they come from countries in which the Euro-nomenklatura controls debate and in which Europe has long since been absorbed into the domestic political bloodstream, the Eurocrats cannot understand the constraints which British democracy imposes on any PM, even a Europhile with an enormous majority. If the Brits insist on trying to hold us back, grumble the Eurocrats, we must find a way of marginalising them. We are certainly not going to allow them to pick and choose only the aspects of Europe which suit them; forget A la carte, they will cat the same table d'hote as the rest of us.

In the run-up to the Helsinki summit, the British government is being subjected to moral, emotional and political blackmail, and it is working. Margaret Thatcher would have relished such a challenge. Albeit with reluctance and foreboding, John Major would have accepted it, but Tony Blair is close to panic. He assumed that he could use his charm to finesse any problems on the European agenda. He also assumed that, sooner or later, he would be able to persuade the British electorate about the merits of the euro. He now finds that the voters are unpersuaded, the difficulties unresolved. As so often with a complex issue', he has failed to think the matter through.

The two questions most immediately in dispute illustrate Britain's difficulties with Europe, and vice versa. The droit de suite is a levy on the resale of modern works of art; the proceeds would go to the artists or their heirs. But if such a tax were imposed, much of the British modern art market would disappear; in future, the sales would take place in New York. The resulting disappearance of dealers and galleries would make life harder for young artists who are naturally more concerned about making their first sales than about any suite. In opposing the droit de suite, the UK is trying to preserve a buoyant international market which is constantly aware of the threat of extra-European competition. But in the rest of the EU, there is no such market, partly because of droit de suite. As so often, the Europeans cannot see why we should enjoy a benefit which they are denied and, given the current mood of anti-British feeling, that is reason enough for them to punish us. …

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