Mary Dejevsky: Don't bank on the European 'dream team'

There are two large obstacles before Europe is reborn in Whitehall's image
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The Independent Online

In matters European, waiting has long been elevated into official British policy. With the French and Dutch "no" votes, Tony Blair must believe that Britain's boat is finally coming in. If he hangs around for just a little longer, the European Union will shed its garlic-scented carapace to reveal the infinitely flexible, blandly inoffensive form of l'Europe britannique.

In matters European, waiting has long been elevated into official British policy. With the French and Dutch "no" votes, Tony Blair must believe that Britain's boat is finally coming in. If he hangs around for just a little longer, the European Union will shed its garlic-scented carapace to reveal the infinitely flexible, blandly inoffensive form of l'Europe britannique.

Britain's new gamble is on victory for a so-called "dream team": the centre-right Angela Merkel for German Chancellor in the September elections and the self-promoting moderniser, Nicolas Sarkozy, for prime minister or - better still - president, in France.

The hope is that these two leaders, plus Mr Blair (or Gordon Brown) in Downing Street, would form the core of the sort of "non-Europe" Europe that British governments hanker after: a loose alliance of sovereign states that is essentially little more than a free-trade zone.

There are, however, two rather large obstacles to be surmounted before Europe is reborn to Britain's liking. The first is that the odds on Ms Merkel and M Sarkozy reaching their respective pinnacles of elected, or executive, office may not be as short as they appear. German polls, to be sure, place Ms Merkel in a seemingly invincible position and a growing consensus considers Mr Schröder's career to be over.

But the summer can be a very long time in German politics, as Edmund Stoiber learnt four years ago. And Mr Schröder is one of the world's most impressive campaigners - a fighter who is at his most dangerous when he is down. Ms Merkel is not without critics in her own party; and, while notably resilient, she is still untried at the highest level. The possible reluctance of German voters to elect a woman Chancellor is another unknown: whatever policies Ms Merkel may offer, Germany's is a socially conservative electorate.

M. Sarkozy's further rise cannot be taken for granted either. It is beyond doubt that he is a gifted, and ruthless, political operator. But M Chirac is the master of the endgame, and there are great dangers in even aspiring to tilt at the Elysée two years before an election. M. Sarkozy neatly side-stepped responsibility for France's economic woes by leaving the finance ministry in favour of the UMP party leadership, when M Chirac forced him to choose. His return to government, however - albeit on his own terms - implicates him in any disasters that lie ahead. He can remain semi-detached in the public perception for only so long.

His prospects of becoming an effective head of government and eventually president, of course, have been enhanced by the schism in the French Socialist Party over the European constitution. Weakness does not mean, however, that the French Socialists have no capacity left to spoil. Which is brings us to the second obstacle lurking, apparently undetected, in all the wishful thinking proceeding on this side of the Channel.

Even if the Merkel-Sarkozy "dream team" comes to office, this is no guarantee that either would want to introduce the changes Britain expects, or that they would wield sufficient power to do so. Ms Merkel, who is much taken with the low-tax, high-growth models of the "new" Europeans, might try to move Germany in that direction - which could give it a competitive edge over Britain. M. Sarkozy, for his part, could turn out to be more of a one-nation Gaullist in spirit than a Blairite.

The greater difficulty, however, is that even with solid mandates, any new French or German leader would face enormous popular resistance to the sort of deregulating reforms Mr Blair and others insist their countries need. M. Chirac's first prime minister, Alain Juppé, learnt the price of trying to tackle the country's public service workers: much of France was immobilised; much of the French public supported the workers; the only person to lose his job was M. Juppé.

Resistance in Germany might have less of the Bastille about it, but it would be no less effective. The regional defeat for the Social-Democrats, which prompted Mr Schröder to risk an early election, was less a vote for the centre-right than a protest against the government's benefit-cutting reforms. Ms Merkel might well be elected on an anti-Schröder vote, but there would be severe constraints on what she could do - just as there would be on M. Sarkozy.

Both would have to be more original, more tactical and more considerate of national sentiment than Mr Blair needed to be after his 1997 landslide. They might also define success differently. Downing Street and Whitehall might want victory for this "dream-ticket" in the belief it will remake Europe in Britain's image. But there is no guarantee of either, and they should be careful what they wish for.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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