Steve Richards: Why has Tony Blair failed to convince the public of the benefits of Europe?

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The Independent Online

The British presidency of the European Union is over. There is no looming vote in the Commons on Europe to test the competence of Labour's flaky whips office. Other policies, from Iraq to education, are more immediately explosive. So what is Tony Blair doing tonight making a major speech on Europe, reflecting at length on Britain's relationship with the EU under his premiership and the changing nature of the institution itself?

One answer is obvious. As a political issue Europe works to his political advantage and causes continuing problems for the Conservatives, although their Euroscepticism chimes apparently with the views of most voters. On Europe at least there is a clear dividing line between Mr Blair and David Cameron.

The Conservative leader approaches many issues with an astute strategic awareness, as he seeks to de-couple Mr Blair from Labour. But in relation to Europe Mr Cameron struggles to escape from his original decision to break away from the EPP, the alliance of centre-right MEPS in the European parliament.

His shadow foreign affairs spokesman, William Hague, has attracted negative headlines for the first time since he ceased to be leader as he seeks to form a new alliance in Europe, only to discover that most of the available right-wing parties espouse at least one eccentric or unpalatable policy. Not for the first time, the Conservatives are in trouble over Europe.

But Mr Blair's speech will be more than tribal mischief-making. He will reflect on what he regards as a big paradox in British politics. Eurosceptics are preening themselves, proclaiming victory when a British government is more engaged with the European Union than at any point in the history of this country's membership. Eurosceptics argue that the paradox is explained easily. As far as they are concerned they are jubilant because they have won. Britain is outside the Euro, the constitution is in tatters and British public opinion is resolutely hostile.

On the surface they have an overwhelming case. Earlier this week, Dominic Lawson revealed in The Independent that when Mr Blair met the Spectator staff for lunch before the 1997 election he told even this ardently Eurosceptic magazine of his determination to join the single currency. Soon after he became Prime Minister, Mr Blair went further, describing his historic objective as ending what he called Britain's ambiguous relationship with Europe. As he approaches the end of his period in power, the country's relationship with Europe is ambiguous at best. But this narrative is too simplistic. If it told the full story the Tories would be far more confident in their defiant Euroscepticism than they are.

In the mid-1990s there was a naivety about Europe in new Labour circles. Europe was almost an alternative philosophy for those who had ditched so many of their beliefs after four election defeats. The EU and the single currency offered also an apparent security for a party approaching power after so many years in fearful opposition.

From the perspective of power Europe became less enticing in some respects. Those of us in the media who berated Blair/ Brown for their timidity in Government towards the euro were wrong. There has been no point since 1997 when entry would have been economically beneficial and a referendum winnable. Mr Blair was willing to fight a referendum over the EU constitution, but the plebiscite in France meant that he was never tested in such a dramatic context. For many years there was an assumption within Government and beyond that Europe would spark an explosion in British politics out of which Mr Blair would be either blown apart or resurface in a more powerful position than ever before. The explosion did not happen.

Some pro-Europeans have compared critically the relative silence of the Blair era with the big bang that accompanied the leadership of Ted Heath. But Mr Heath was not tested for very long as a Prime Minister in Europe. He lost a general election soon after negotiating membership. That is the big difference. Mr Blair's significant and understated achievement is to remain engaged constructively with the European Union throughout his long leadership.

There was a terrible lapse in the build up to the war against Iraq when he distorted the public statements of President Chirac over the doomed second UN resolution and encouraged a lot of anti-French nonsense in war-supporting newspapers. Apart from that act of desperate opportunism he has shown relentless focus and goodwill towards an institution that tests the patience of British leaders used to getting their way in a domestic context.

He has sought common agreement on defence, asylum, international crime, taken risks in agreeing budgets, appointed some of his most pro-European allies - Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson - in key posts and made the case consistently for economic reform. Harold Wilson's press secretary, Joe Haines, told me recently that Wilson had hoped to be a leader in Europe but became disillusioned. Jim Callaghan was always ambivalent. Margaret Thatcher began her leadership by being pro-European and criticising the Labour government for failing to join the European Monetary System. She became the most virulent Eurosceptic of the lot. John Major had hoped to be at the heart of Europe and ended by wrapping himself in a union jack and fighting a comical beef war.

Mr Blair has remained engaged and sought to remove some of the poison from the debate. His performances in the Commons when he faces the Euroscepticism of the Conservatives have been impressive in their coherent exuberance.

So, why has he not converted public opinion? With some justification, he argues that it is impossible to do so while much of the British media remains so outrageously bitter in its Euroscepticism. Mr Blair will look ahead in parts of his speech tonight reflecting on the need for Europe to win once more the political case for its existence before embarking on institutional reforms. He will stress again the need for economic change in a global economy. He will look back too.

Arguably, the speech will be the first example of Mr Blair giving his version of history in a key policy area, a tangible sign that an era is drawing to a close. Even if he is around for quite a bit longer he is unlikely to get another chance to step out for the whirl of headlines to speak at length to a domestic audience on Europe. Commentators and writers have started to reflect on the Blair era. He is doing so too.

As he reflects on his approach to Europe he will not hear the sound of cymbals crashing. There were no high-wire acts or a defining event. But pro-Europeans have more benefits from the Blair years than they dare to realise, and the many extreme Eurosceptics celebrate prematurely.