The world warms to Blair's victory

Europe hopes poll will lance Eurosceptic boil
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The Independent Online
The euphoria which spread over much of Britain on Thursday night had by yesterday wafted on a breeze across the English Channel.

By midday, patches of that euphoric haze appeared to be settling over several continental capitals. Politicians and diplomats in Paris, Bonn, Brussels and the Hague were heard talking in light-headed, optimistic tones about Tony Blair, the new Prime Minister of Britain.

Not only did the election bring predictions, all over Britain, of a fundamental shift in the political scene, but here too, in continental Europe, Mr Blair's victory was being greeted as a sign of a fundamental shift in the European Union's political landscape.

The dominant sentiment was that at last the rest of the Europe would be able to get on with the job of building a more integrated Europe without destructive carping from one recalcitrant member state.

Whatever cautiousness Mr Blair might have shown so far on the issue of European integration, it has always been evident to other states that Mr Blair views himself as pro-European, and will work to to restore a harmonious relationship between London and Brussels.

Jacques Santer, the European Commission president, could barely conceal his relief at the prospect of speeding the negotiations in the InterGovernment Conference (IGC) towards completion of an Amsterdam Treaty, held up by 18 months of Conservative stubbornness.

Mr Santer applauded Mr Blair's "outstanding victory", saying that he had come to power at a "crucial stage" of the union's development. He listed the challenges of the IGC, which included enlargement, economic and monetary union, budgetary reform and completing the single market.

More significant, however, than the displays of sudden affection for British leader was the speed with which Britain's partners sought to interpret the British election result as a blow against Euro-scepticism not just in Britain, but across the union. Every European Union country has experienced Euroscepticism in recent years.

Now it seems that Britain, the country which has seen the most virulent form of the Eurosceptic virus, has rejected it at the polls.

Mr Kohl, who is himself fighting German doubts about the single currency, was swift to hold up the British result as a lesson to sceptics everywhere.

And Herve de Charette, the French foreign minister, whose government is also struggling to counter Euro-sceptic sentiment in the current French elections, said: "This is a blow against British Euroscepticism." He added: "This election marks a step back from Euroscepticism".

As the euphoric haze wafts away again, and the dreary process of EU negotiation starts up again, some of the hopes among Britain's partners may prove to be wishful thinking.

However, the messages of goodwill from the Continent signalled more than just a change in tone. What is evident in the pronouncements of many European leaders is a genuine desire for Britain to elect a prime minister with a sufficiently clear vision and a party united enough to take a lead in building Europe. There is a strong sense in many capitals that the vision of the old elite is losing its clarity. The Franco-German engine is running down and there is widespread talk of a leadership vacuum.

When Mr Blair meets his partners for his first European summit on 23 May he will have his first real chance to demonstrate that he wishes to take up such a leadership role.

Mr Santer told him yesterday: "We look forward to the United Kingdom, under your government, playing its rightful leading role within the union."

Mr Santer was candid in his recognition that a dose of positive British pragmatism could go down well.

"Never more than now has the European Union needed strong British commitment with its unique combination of pragmatism and efficiency," he said.

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