His policy on Europe is a failure. But can you really blame the man?

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's policy towards the European Union has been a failure, but it is not his fault. Whatever the negotiating triumphs, real or pretended, secured by the Prime Minister at Brussels on Friday night, the big picture is that he is not where he wanted to be.

Tony Blair's policy towards the European Union has been a failure, but it is not his fault. Whatever the negotiating triumphs, real or pretended, secured by the Prime Minister at Brussels on Friday night, the big picture is that he is not where he wanted to be.

He assumed that simply by being in power for seven years, a pro-European government would change the terms of Britain's relationship with the Union. It hasn't really. It may no longer be assumed by our partners that Britain will be automatically hostile to any proposal for more co-operation, but they do not think that we are enthusiasts either. It was the 1980s all over again when Jacques Chirac said that the ambitions of the Brussels summit had been reduced "by the clear position of one country". Just in case anyone thought he meant Latvia, he helpfully identified the culprit as "le Royaume-Uni".

Even allowing for the greasepaint factor, Chirac's outburst contained a truth: Britain is different. As the only large member state outside the euro, that cannot be contradicted. But it goes a lot deeper than that.

Blair is at the mercy of the forces of history more than his rhetoric or pride will ever allow. It should be clear by now that the European cause has gone backwards over the seven years of his prime ministership. Pro-European ministers glumly acknowledge this in private. One said last week that he used to think ahead to 2015 and conclude that Britain was bound to have adopted the euro by then; therefore we should do so as early as possible in order to gain the benefits and have a say in how it is run. But now 2015 looks optimistic and there may be a referendum on the EU constitution to win - or lose - first.

This backsliding has happened not because of some failing on the part of Blair, but because the reasons why much of the British political class was persuaded we needed the euro no longer apply. Labour decided that European monetary union was its way of being trusted to run the economy responsibly, and especially was its guarantee against inflation. But inflation is a folk memory of the days before mobile phones and as time goes by the credibility of an independent Bank of England has grown while the case for adopting the euro has consequently diminished.

A different version of the same arguments impressed big business. But, as Blair keeps pointing out, in order to cover the embarrassment of his retreat, no prominent business leader is insisting that now is the right time to join.

More broadly, "Europe was a liferaft to cling to", as Sunder Katwala puts it in the next issue of Prospect. The new general secretary of the pro-European Fabian Society points out that in the 1970s, the case for joining, and remaining in, the EEC was a defeatist "argument from decline". Now, Britain has one of Europe's most successful economies, and even the gap between our public services and those on the continent is narrowing. The force of the argument for deepening our attachment is therefore weakening.

That allows even older currents in British popular culture to reassert themselves. One of the books that is well thumbed by Blair's advisers in No 10 is Andrew Gamble's latest, Between Europe and America: The Future of British Politics. It is a brilliant analysis of the long historical roots of Britain's ambiguous attitude to the EU. He describes how the Empire and the former Empire, including the United States, has been seen for three centuries as a global trading network centred on London.

When the UK Independence Party or Conservative Eurosceptics portray mainland Europe as the source of "all our problems" (as Margaret Thatcher once memorably said, prompting the quizzical response from Kenneth Clarke, "Well, it's a point of view, isn't it?"), they are drinking from ancient wells of suspicion.

So the problem that Blair faced when he entered Downing Street in 1997 was not simply that the Conservative civil war had poisoned the ground. It was not even that he had a lot of catching up to do after successive British governments had joined each advance towards European unity late and unprepared. He had to try to shift some even more fundamental assumptions about Britain's place in the world.

That is why those pro-Europeans who thought it would be terribly glamorous to fight and lose a referendum on the euro in Blair's first term were so deluded. A referendum on the currency has never looked remotely winnable, not even in the first 100 days of post-election euphoria in 1997. The constant refrain is that Blair has failed to give a lead on Europe, as if there were some magic pixie-dust in a bottle marked "vote-winning charisma" that could neutralise the anti-European press and transform a fundamental pattern in British public opinion within months.

That is yielding too much to the power of the individual to shape history. Whatever Blair's romantic notion of himself, it was never in his power to overcome such tectonic forces.

Equally delusional are the demands - from pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans alike - that this country decide its relationship with the rest of Europe "once and for all". Why should it? The referendum on the EU constitution is supposed to be such an opportunity. But so was the referendum in 1975 - why should a new referendum be decisive? Especially when, if Britain votes No - or the Czechs or the Danes save Blair's blushes by doing it first - nothing much will happen? The Union will muddle on and come up with other ways of improving its decision-making as even more countries join.

What no one is saying is that there is no need to join the eurozone, although we should have that option, and we do not need the constitution either, but might go along with it if we can be sure it is harmless. That is Blair's position, but he cannot say it quite so bluntly. Not least because it would be an admission of failure, measured against his rhetoric of fulfilling Britain's "destiny" of being "at the heart of Europe".

He is a remarkable politician, because he was quite sincere every time he repeated it, yet he never really meant it, because he also sincerely believes - "it is an article of faith with me" - that Britain's place in the world is at America's side. He just does not admit the contradiction - that is glossed over: "if there are tensions, resolve them", he said last week.

His pre-summit news conference in Downing Street contained several classic examples of Blairspeak. Britain was different, or "almost unique", he boasted, as "the strongest ally" of the US, the most powerful nation in the world, and a member of "the biggest political alliance and biggest economic market in the world", the EU. "Why should we give either of these two things up?"

In the last century, Britain's leaders saw their job as being to manage decline. Blair seems to see his as being to manage ambiguity. For that, he is a natural.