A British case that needs to be argued more often
Friday 24 June 2005
That said, this was just the sort of occasion that played to Mr Blair's formidable strengths. He excels in escaping from tight political corners, and this is exactly where he, and Britain, found themselves after last week's failed summit. Clearly relishing the challenge, he spoke with fluency and conviction. He listened to the speeches that followed and appeared engaged. He treated the experience as though it were a less combative version of Prime Minister's Questions – which, in a way, it was.
Most of all, though, he presented a reasoned argument – his argument – for the direction that the European Union should take. And, churlish though it may seem to say so, it is something he should have done long before. He has a case to make and he needs to make it as often as there is an audience to listen, not just in Brussels, but elsewhere on the Continent and here at home. The cause of Europe has languished at least in part because so few politicians of stature have taken the trouble to make it.
Mr Blair's ideas about the future of Europe are ones to which we subscribe in outline, if not in every detail. There are forceful reasons for advocating a European "third way" which recognises that the world is a competitive place and becoming more so as China, India and others join the global economy. Mr Blair is right when he says this is a challenge Europe must meet. He is right, too, when he calls for an overall restructuring of the European budget and for changes that would foster growth and create jobs in the countries where unemployment is high. Europe cannot afford to stagnate; it cannot afford to neglect science and technology, research and development; it must change in response to changes in the wider world. It must modernise.
As welcome as the cogency that Mr Blair brought to his argument was the absence of triumphalism. Peter Mandelson, now EU trade commissioner, but still a master of the political nuance, has appealed to British ministers not just to act European, but to speak European. In this speech, the Prime Minister did his best. There were no insults, explicit or implicit, in the direction of old foes, such as President Chirac – only the stark and unanswerable fact that the figure of 20 million jobless across Europe was hardly evidence of a successful social model. And there was the repeated insistence that Britain understood and embraced the concept of Europe as a "political project" and "a union of values". This sort of thing translates well into European.
Almost the only boast that Mr Blair made was that he was the only British leader ever to say that he would place the famed rebate on the table. That, and his insistence that any change in the budget would happen over time and take account of the "legitimate needs of farming communities", constituted a sharp change of tone, if not exactly a climbdown, from the recriminations of last week. We hope M. Chirac was listening.
For Mr Blair to take the argument to Brussels so soon after the failed summit was a risk, and a risk that largely paid off. The Parliament, though, is not the forum where the coming battles will be won or lost. Mr Blair has to win over his fellow national leaders in the European Council. The question is whether the six months of the British presidency will be time enough.
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