What `The Sun' says about Blair and Europe

A Labour government might be listened to in the EU, and that's a prize worth keeping in play
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The Independent Online
Yesterday, The Sun was succinct. None of those wishy-washy lines in the liberal - and indeed most of the Tory - press about how Tony Blair would retain the veto and stand up for Britain's interests as Prime Minister. Far from it. The paper that cuts to the chase was clear yesterday about the Labour leader's message in his weekend interviews: "Blair Vows: I'm backing Brussels. Labour to give up Veto on vital Euro laws".

That would be less interesting if it weren't that The Sun has become so unpredictable lately on questions of party politics. It has been - at times - a good deal more vitriolic about John Major than it has ever been about Tony Blair. And it wouldn't matter if The Sun's obsessive Europhobia didn't have the capacity to inspire fear and loathing in both the main political parties. Which is why Labour reacted with such unbridled fury at yesterday's (page two) headline. Much more fury, predictably enough, than when John Major said most of the same things yesterday afternoon, claiming that a Labour government would conduct a "Dutch auction" of British sovereignty.

But did The Sun have a point? How far apart are the two parties on Europe? And can Major, with the albeit fickle backing of Rupert Murdoch's biggest- selling newspaper, still turn Europe into a vote winner? Let's quickly map out some territory. The Sun's report was based largely on the well- known fact that Tony Blair doesn't rule out the possibility that Labour may agree in the current intergovernmental conference (IGC) to an extension of majority voting - as opposed to unanimity, which means each country can veto any proposal - in four policy areas: social, regional, industrial and environmental. It's also true that the Labour leader has shown no sign so far of flinching - despite some wishful reports in right-wing newspapers to the contrary - from signing up to the social chapter.

David Davies, the Government's European minister, will continue what he skilfully began in Dublin last week - extracting the maximum from all this to argue that Blair is ready to sell British sovereignty down the river. As it happens there are no proposals yet to extend majority voting in any of those areas - though there is a powerful case for doing so on the environment, since pollution has a nasty habit of crossing borders. The real-world impact of the social chapter is probably exaggerated by both its defenders and its critics. And even John Major for the first time slipped into his own BBC interview the admission that he wouldn't utterly, for eternity, rule out an extension of majority voting if there was "some tiny area lurking in the undergrowth" that he hadn't yet thought about. Prime ministers don't usually say things like that if they're not rather carefully keeping possible compromises open.

None of that will stop the energetic Mr Davies. But the problem for him is that this is that is more or less ... er ... it. On the undesirability of institutionalising an EU immigration policy, likely to be one of the most difficult issues at the IGC, there is not a cigarette paper between the two leaders. On "flexibility" - Euro-speak for the actually rather inflexible idea that Germany and France should run a hard-core, inner Europe, leaving the outsiders in a peripheral second-class one - Blair is as determined as John Major that this must not happen without British agreement. And he isn't going to give up a veto on foreign policy or sign up to a European army any more than Major is. Above all, thanks to Major's decision not to rule out a single currency, on the most explosive issue of all, the formal positions of the two parties are famously close together.

Which is probably quite lucky for Blair. It is said at the highest Labour levels that had John Major ditched Ken Clarke and buckled to the Euro- sceptics by ruling out the single currency, Blair would not have succumbed to the Faustian embrace of such as The Sun and followed suit. That's no doubt true. Blair genuinely believes that the best way of extending Britain's influence is to do so as a strong player in the EU. But this scenario would have left him in a more exposed and uncomfortable position in the run-up to the election. As it is now, he has the space to argue that on first-order issues his formal position is close to that of John Major's but that the big difference is that he has a manageable party and Major doesn't. And, as a result, that he will be able to exercise more influence in Europe if and when elected.

You don't have to sign up to the misty eyed proposition that "all Europe is waiting for Tony Blair" to think there is quite a lot in this. Major and Kenneth Clarke have consistently argued that to retain its influence over the shape of EMU it needs to leave open the possibility that it will join. But as it is, it is largely thanks to the respect that Kenneth Clarke enjoys in Europe - and his occasional dogged willingness to gatecrash the odd caucus meeting - that Britain retains some of that influence. From time to time, the idea has been mooted in Whitehall that the UK government should simply propose formally that the single currency should be postponed. There is an excellent case for it. But a British proposal of that kind would be laughed out of court as a move patently motivated by the vested interest of a party, a growing number of whose MPs want to be outside Europe, let alone EMU. It doesn't take much imagination to see that a Labour government - even one saying it didn't want to join EMU in the first wave but did want to be in the second - might be listened to rather carefully on all sorts of substantive points, including whether the celebrated Maastricht criteria were being fudged. And that's a prize worth keeping in play. Sun or no Sun.