OPINION

The Blair vision

The gloves are finally off: British Prime Minister Tony Blair is trying to tilt the European Union onto the course of the so-called Anglo-Saxon model, backed by business interests that want to see a further deregulation of the economy. The leaders of central Europe – France and Germany – are less enthusiastic about Blair’s ambitions and are trying to conform to public sentiment. After all, their very political survival depends on the popular vote. Blair made his intentions clear during a speech at the European Parliament last Thursday. The British premier said it was wrong to caricature the EU dilemma as being between political union and a mere free trade area. «Since this is a day for demolishing caricatures, let me demolish one more: the idea that Britain is in the grip of some extreme Anglo-Saxon market philosophy that tramples on the poor and disadvantaged,» the Labor leader said. He did not forget to pledge his support for a new type of development and welfare state. This unusual clash is reminiscent of the tactics used to agitate people in Third World countries against their dictatorial leaders. The difference is that Blair is not reaching out to the protesters of some former captive states of the Soviet Union but is actually appealing to the continent’s economic elite. Paradoxically, Britain wants a strong say over the EU’s economy and budget plans and to steer the EU out of the current crisis, even though it has opted out of the eurozone and the economic obligations stemming from the common currency market. Blair’s speech to the European Parliament echoed a desire to come across as a Europeanist. The British leader blamed the massive rejection of the proposed EU charter on French President Jacques Chirac yet, at the same time, took advantage of the French «no» vote to postpone any British action on this crucial issue. Political opposition from rival parties and disillusionment inside his own Labor Party were not enough to deprive him of victory in recent general elections. But it was British voters who picked Blair as their leader, not Europeans as a whole. Therefore, he is not entitled to a place at the helm of the community. Germany has, for decades, been Europe’s economic powerhouse, feeding the integration process despite the repeated setbacks. If Blair wants to spearhead that process, he will have to pay the economic price and act less like a Levantine merchant in struggling to maintain the long-cherished rebate system won by former Tory leader Margaret Thatcher back in 1984. Emotions are meaningless to the debate. The British presidency of the EU will be the most interesting in the Union’s recent history. Blair has won three elections and has no ambition to complete the latest mandate, so he does not have to worry about his political survival on the domestic level. However, despite his apparent clout and his support by the European business sector, Blair looks quite vulnerable and could as yet be sidelined by coordinated action from France and Germany. The constitutional debacle in France has taken its toll on Chirac’s authority, while Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s decision to call for early elections has thrown Germany into a period of navel-gazing. More than any other time in recent history, Blair is presented with a chance to play a leading role in European developments.