OPINION

Straddling two boats

Tony Blair has once again shown that he has ample reserves of political sophistry. In his speech yesterday to the European Parliament, the British prime minister invoked the constitutional rejections in France and the Netherlands to make his claims regarding the European Union. There is little doubt their «no» votes reflect worry over the consequences of too-hasty expansion and also what they believe to be an attempt to dismantle the European social model. In fact, Britain itself should be more a source of concern than the proposed treaty. Blair’s words were carefully chosen, but actions speak louder than words. «I am a passionate pro-European,» Blair said, though everyone knows London has repeatedly stifled moves toward integration. The Labour Party leader is taking advantage of the Chirac and Schroeder setbacks to move ahead with his plans to pull the bloc apart. Blair is right to be pressing for agricultural reform. But he raised the issue mainly to deflect pressure on Britain to give ground over London’s long-cherished EU budget rebate. Blair is forthcoming only when it suits him in his bid to undermine the EU enterprise. Britain joined the Union because it reasoned it could better influence developments from within than from without. London has never relinquished its special relationship with Washington and has often acted as a US mouthpiece. Britain has also made no secret of its intention to keep the EU at the level of loose intergovernmental cooperation, if not a purely free-trade zone. The fact that Britain continues to keep a foot in two different boats threatens to divide the union. Blair wants more nations in the EU, but also dismisses talk about increasing the funds needed for convergence. Yet the paradox is only rhetorical. In fact, Blair is being consistent with his goal of reducing Europe to a common market where genuine convergence is off the agenda.