Tony Blair has been seduced by the two sick men of Europe

He is sacrificing his relationship with those that have been solid allies with Britain's drive to lead economic reform

Tony Blair's willingness to re-focus his attention on Europe could go drastically wrong if he chooses to align himself with France and Germany. When will British governments realise that attempts to buy off, kow-tow to and break bread with these two lumbering beasts of "old Europe" are doomed to failure?

At the very moment that there is a real chance for Britain to be at "the heart of Europe", Mr Blair has been seduced by the sick men of the continent, Messrs Chirac and Schröder, and risks jeopardising the opportunity to place himself at the head of the far more important grouping of Spain, Italy, Poland and the other countries about to join. Presumably, the idea is to inject a few gasps of life into the notion, surely discredited a long time ago, that British involvement with France and Germany will provide some kind of insurance against a duopoly of power, and a guarantee that European integration can somehow be squared with transatlantic interests.

Even the small countries of "old Europe" - Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg - are showing signs of anger at the behaviour of France and Germany. This is a lost opportunity by Britain to take a lead in European diplomacy and politics.

But the vitriol from the countries excluded from last night's gathering indicates how the balance in Europe is changing - potentially to Britain's advantage - if we could only see the bigger picture. It is little wonder there is anger from the excluded countries at this cabal, after the way in which Germany and France have behaved during the recently stalled negotiations over the proposed European constitution. Such a failure where, for once, Britain was on the sidelines, provided an opportunity for Mr Blair to throw in his lot with the genuine Europeans - those inclined to believe in the true meaning of co-operation and confederation.

The emergence of a "gang of three" threatens to destabilise the new wider Europe before the ink is even dry on the accession treaties. Mr Blair invested a degree of personal and political capital in building alliances with Italy and Spain during the Iraqi conflict, but he now risks losing these gains without commensurate benefits from re-engaging with France and Germany. Already, Silvio Berlusconi and José Maria Anzar have complained that they want to see a Europe that grows with the agreement of all, not with "triumvirates" that damage the construction of Europe. Six countries have written to Ireland's EU presidency criticising the positions taken by France, Germany and the UK.

Mr Blair is sacrificing his relationships with the very countries that have been solid allies with Britain's drive to lead economic reform set down in the goals of the Lisbon summit. And it hardly gives confidence to those countries within the eurozone which have stuck steadfastly to the rules of the stability pact, that Britain should be siding with the very countries that, for all their professed doctrines of communitarian behaviour, have thumbed their noses at the rulebook.

Inevitably, in a grouping of 25 nations there may well be occasions when some member countries will want to have the occasional pow-wow outside formal meetings of EU institutions, but the suspicion is growing that France and Germany will try to bamboozle Britain into adopting their version of the constitution - thereby losing us the very allies more likely to adopt our view of a more open Europe.

The current split within Europe does, of course, opens up potential opportunities for the British Conservative Party to re-direct its previous euroscepticism into a more positive approach. New countries such as Poland could be the best allies of Mr Howard's view of Europe, set out in his own speech in Berlin last week. It is hard to underestimate just how important Poland will be in shaping the New Europe to our advantage.

It is just a shame that Mr Howard, in his domestic battle with Mr Blair over immigration from the new member states, should have ratcheted up the issue so that the Government has panicked itself into such a lather. On one level, Mr Howard can feel well satisfied that he has forced the Government into adopting short-term measures that appear to give him a domestic political victory. In the end, however, it seems as though next week's announcement to Parliament will be largely cosmetic, with restrictions confined to benefit entitlement but with work permits allowed for those able to secure employment.

From my own experience of once representing Scunthorpe, which has probably the largest post-war emigré Polish community in the UK, I would have no hesitation, as a Tory, in espousing the most liberal attitude towards immigration from Poland. In the 1980s, when the local economy was dominated by a sclerotic nationalised industry, it was the Poles who provided the dynamism and enterprise.

I will never forget that the best reception I ever got at public meetings were the several I held in the Polish clubs. Poles are natural workers, entrepreneurs and businessmen. Their votes, solid to a man and woman, got me my winning majority, and their adoration of Margaret Thatcher exceeded mine. Even after the recession of the early 1980s when unemployment touched 25 per cent, it was rare for benefit claimants attending my surgery to include the Poles, who would be the first to diversify and set up new businesses. If I were working in the bowels of Conservative HQ, I would be actively recruiting in Gdansk and Warsaw for at least 1,000 Poles to settle in every marginal constituency in Britain. Indeed, the less Poles there are in Poland and the more of them in Britain, the better for our economy.

Britain's long-term interest must surely be to align itself with the machinery of European voting rights proposed by Spain and Poland, which would block the powers of the "big three". The occasions when it will be in our interest to be at the mercy of France and Germany will surely be rare. Mr Blair has boxed himself in by his narrow focus on "red lines" limiting the application of the draft constitution. The fear is that any deals he has already done in the previous rounds of stalled negotiations will unravel if the Irish presidency opens up the process all over again. France and Germany are temporarily using Britain as an unwitting pawn in order to secure an EU constitution by the summer.

It is easy to see how Mr Blair may revel in sitting down at the big boys' table without, for once, being in the European dock; in being treated as if he were "one of us" against the minnows. But in the longer term, it is the minnows of Europe that have the capacity to provide the engine of reform. There is no sign, domestically, that France or Germany have woken up to their parlous economic weaknesses. But they have tumbled to a state of political weakness, and this is the time for Britain to take a lead in lending its muscle to the rest. It would be an irony if, at the very moment we had it in our power to change the direction of Europe for good and move the project towards greater flexibility, we ended up backing the wrong horses.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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