Steve Richards: Mr Blair is the last man to want a European confrontation - although he will get one

Certainly he didn't envisage stepping into Thatcher's shoes, wielding his veto, clinging to the rebate
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The Independent Online

Parts of the French media are portraying Tony Blair unflatteringly as the Iron Man of Europe, a version of Margaret Thatcher's Iron Lady. Some British newspapers make the same connection to Mrs Thatcher, although they regard it as a compliment.

This is an unexpected but probably inevitable development. Throughout his leadership, Mr Blair has been only too aware of how the Thatcher era continued to shape perceptions of Europe in Britain. Almost certainly he did not envisage stepping into her shoes, wielding his veto, clinging to the rebate, Britain apparently isolated in Europe once more.

I would be surprised if Mr Blair enjoys the new role that events and the wily tactics of President Chirac have thrust upon him. Mr Blair is a conciliator rather than a confrontational leader. Even the nightmare of Iraq began with Mr Blair playing the role of a mediator, albeit a desperate one. Originally Mr Blair had hoped to persuade the EU, the UN and just about everyone else to unite over Iraq. Only after a series of diplomatic failures did Mr Blair become an Iron Man, blaming France unfairly for his failure to secure a second UN resolution. His efforts to find a consensus led him to a precarious position where he had no choice but to become a confrontational bully.

Part of the problem Mr Blair faces now, as he did in the build-up to the war in Iraq, is that British politics is played out in public. One way or another, British ministers are held to account most minutes of the day. In France, President Chirac has not given a single media interview about the French "non" in the referendum. His first interviews will be in advance of today's summit. In contrast, Mr Blair and his Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, have been asked about the implications of the "no" vote in the Commons or in interviews ever since the result was announced. They are also being pressed on how they plan to keep Britain's rebate.

It is this underestimated difference in political culture that has enabled M. Chirac to shift without a moment's backward glance from the crisis over the referendum to the debate over the rebate. He had no explaining to do, and therefore moved on.

In contrast, Mr Blair has had a lot of explaining to do. He has had no choice but to play some of his negotiating hand in advance and in public or else appear hopelessly weak in interviews and in the Commons. Under various forms of inquisition, Mr Blair has made several statements. The British rebate is not for negotiation. The rebate is for negotiation, but only as part of a fundamental reform of EU finances. There is a need to reflect on the implications of the referendum results. The best parts of the treaty are worth saving (with the implication that the constitution as it currently stands is going nowhere).

In spite of these contrasting statements, the British position is clear. The Government regards the constitutional treaty as dead and has no intention of holding a referendum. Mr Blair will seek to save some of the less controversial proposals such as those that give greater influence to the national parliaments. He will almost certainly use the veto at the summit to save the rebate, although the proposal raised by Peter Mandelson earlier this week is being seriously considered in Downing Street as part of the negotiations.

In one of his more thoughtful and considered speeches, Mr Mandelson questioned whether the poorer countries should contribute to Britain's rebate. Senior government insiders tell me that they recognise the potency of the question.

Out of these two crises, Mr Blair seeks a broader debate which he outlined in detail during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday: in facing the challenges of globalisation, does Europe regulate more intensively or adopt a more liberal approach? In terms of international relations, does Europe regard its main priority as working in alliance with the US?

This is a challenging agenda, to put it mildly. France will not give up its agricultural subsidies and Britain clings to its rebate. For both countries they are totemic issues. On BBC Five Live this week, I heard a French journalist insist that the farmers must have their subsidies because we all like the French way of life, with its enticing and varied cheeses in virtually every village.

She seemed baffled that there was any controversy about the Common Agricultural Policy. Having just lost a referendum on the constitution, it is inconceivable that President Chirac will announce a willingness to give up the French way of life as well.

For British leaders, Mrs Thatcher's rebate has the same aura. This symbol of a British leader standing up to Europe cannot be touched. Without realising it at the time, Mrs Thatcher set a trap for her prime ministerial successors. In feeling obliged to protect every penny of the rebate, British prime ministers, however pro-European, are doomed to being isolated in Europe. At some stage they will find other countries uniting in protest at the rebate.

This is Mr Blair's fate over the next two days. Senior government insiders say that there can only be movement on the rebate if there are equivalent advances in relation to the Common Agricultural Policy. Don't hold your breath.

In terms of the bigger and broader debate, Mr Blair knows where he stands on the need for more economic liberalism, and the value he attaches to Europe working in alliance with the United States. Most of the other EU leaders also know where they stand, including those who take the opposite view. This is a debate that ends as it begins, although it might begin again when Germany and France have new leaders. Indeed, this is not even the first beginning. We have been debating the future of Europe for years. It is a debate with many beginnings and endings.

After the two referendums in France and Holland, there was an irrationally optimistic tone to Britain's response, as if this country had just won the World Cup even though it had not taken part in the final. These reactions ignored the fact that Mr Blair was a strong advocate of the constitution, that the referendums were partly a negative verdict on British priorities in Europe, and that there are still continuing resentments about Britain's support for the war against Iraq.

In the early 1990s, Mr Blair identified a route to recovery for the Labour Party and then navigated that route with triumphant success. I suspect he has applied the same model to international issues, stepping back and identifying a way through. But in the case of Europe, other countries and their leaders are less pliable than a Labour Party desperate for power. As a result, Mr Blair is less an Iron Man and more a leader in a hurry. Such are the challenges facing Europe, his time will almost certainly run out long before solutions are reached.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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