Adrian Hamilton: Does Blair want France to vote 'yes'?

At least it would give him a grand and dramatic issue on which to end his prime ministership
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The Independent Online

If the elephant in the living room in this election from the past has been Iraq, the hippopotamus of the future is Europe. And hippopotamuses, as visitors to game reserves know, are both unpredictable and liable to upset even the most stable vessel.

If the elephant in the living room in this election from the past has been Iraq, the hippopotamus of the future is Europe. And hippopotamuses, as visitors to game reserves know, are both unpredictable and liable to upset even the most stable vessel.

For Iraq, the game has been played and there is little that any British government can now do but wait for the moment that the troops can be brought back with as little fuss and stain on their standards as possible. It's a situation where there can no longer be hope for glory, but just honourable disengagement.

Europe, however, will be the first big issue on any new prime minister's desk, not only because of Blair's casual, and opportunistic (at the time), decision to hold a referendum but because the French will be holding theirs at the end of next month, and it will be Britain, as the next president of the EU, who will have to pick up the pieces whatever the result.

Is Blair really hoping that the result will be a no, as most people assume. Yes, in the logical sense that a French negative will stop the new constitution in its tracks and, whatever Blair says for public consumption during the election, relieve the UK of the burden of holding its own vote next year.

But that's not actually how Blair seems to view things. Just as with the last US presidential elections - when Blair went to bed thinking that John Kerry had won and woke to find George Bush had - the British Prime Minister doesn't commit himself even in his own mind to one cause or another.

For that, you need a view of what you want to see in the future and Tony Blair is too pragmatic for that, preferring to cope with any situation as it comes (hence being sucked so seamlessly into the Iraq war). If anything, I suspect he might even like the challenge of a French yes vote. At least it would give him a grand and dramatic occasion on which to end his prime ministership and an opportunity to play the kind of do-or-die gamble which he likes.

For once, he may be the right man in the job, should he win the election. Whatever the outcome of the French vote, Britain is going to have to play the role at the centre of Europe which Blair has so often promised and so singularly failed to act out.

If the vote is yes - and there is still a good chance that the French will approve the constitution as the day of decision draws nearer and the consequences on French prestige and its future place in Europe of voting no grow more threatening - then the UK will have to assume that the Dutch, Poles and others will follow suit, leaving us bringing up the rear with a referendum that looks distinctly unwinnable for the Government.

France will be in the ascendant, and the Prime Minister will have to use the British presidency to get back into the front rank and prepare for his vote. In a sense, he will have to become more European than the continentals.

That, in a curious way, could be just as true if the French vote no. The dismal prospect of a British vote would be removed, but the British would also be faced by a Europe in crisis in which the UK could very easily find itself isolated again as the French, Germans and core European members move to form a tighter ring around themselves and their imperative of a more integrated Europe.

A French no, after all, would be seen as a no to further enlargement, greater labour mobility and more economic liberalisation - in other words, all the things that Britain actually wants and which the French see as essentially Anglo-Saxon.

In the aftermath of a failed French referendum, the UK would need to use its term as president to try and get the train back on the tracks of reform and enlargement, and indeed institutional manageability, if it is to preserve anything of what it wants in a post-referendum Europe.

Its task will hardly be helped by the resentment of a wounded President Chirac who feels that the British were to blame by deciding on a referendum and thus forcing France into theirs.

There are ways that one can see out of a French no. Few, even among the most critical of the newcomers from Eastern Europe, want to see the EU fail.

What has brought the project to such a stuttering state is less the differences between France and Britain, East and West, "new" and "old", and more the common concerns about faltering economic growth, rising immigration, the threats of globalisation to jobs and to the whole social consensus on which the postwar European era of peace and prosperity has been based.

That, plus a general falling-off of belief and trust in politicians throughout Europe, as much in Italy with Berlusconi as with Blair in Britain and with Chirac in France.

The EU has lost its political legitimacy among voters, and it is essentially a political challenge to get it back. It is, after all, a mad situation in which the world at large, from Ukraine to even Kyrgyzstan, looks to Europe as the example they want to follow (and join) while the public within the Union sees it in increasingly negative terms.

Blair has all the skills and negotiating charm - as well as a continued standing much higher in mainland Europe than in his own country - to lead that effort. The trouble is the "vision thing". If only Blair did really care about which way the French will vote.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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