Mr Blair had promised British voters a referendum in order to keep Europe out of his election campaign. French voters scuppered the treaty even before he had come under pressure to set a date for the vote. When President Chirac then called for an end to the British rebate, surely to deflect blame from his government over the referendum, Mr Blair played the patriotic card: the rebate was ours by right, there would be no giving it away – unless, of course, M. Chirac fancied reopening talks on the Common Agricultural Policy.
There was ill-feeling across the Channel; there was trepidation among the East Europeans that their payouts from Brussels might be delayed. Otherwise, it was game, set and match to Mr Blair. When he addressed the European Parliament at the start of this week, he presented himself as European statesman and saviour of the European idea. It was hard to believe he had only recently been re-elected after a hard campaign: he came across as the only European leader of stature left standing.
The central question now is whether Mr Blair can capitalise on his good fortune to the mutual benefit of Britain and the EU. In the Commons yesterday, Jack Straw set out a relatively modest wish-list for Britain's presidency. At the top was progress towards an agreement on the 2007-13 budget, closely followed by advances on the financial services and working hours directives. He also restated Britain's support for further EU enlargement, to include Croatia and, in time, other countries of the former Yugoslavia as well as honouring the existing commitment to start negotiations with Turkey.
None of this represents any radical change in the direction of the European Union. It represents rather a return to the policy status quo before the ill-fated referendums. And what Mr Straw said about the budget hinted at a possible form of words that would allow an interim settlement on the budget– short of full success, but averting failure and recriminations, too. Any new financial perspective must, he said, at very least, "set out a process which leads to a more rational budget". This should surely be attainable in the course of the next six months.
The great opportunity for the British presidency, however, is also its chief handicap. It is not possible to turn the clock back to where it stood before the French and Dutch referendums. The desire for a budget settlement cannot but be impeded by the Anglo-French quarrel over the rebate and CAP. Enlargement, from now on, is bound to be more contested than it was in the past. And it is hard to see room for compromise on financial services when hostility to deregulation was such a factor in the French No.
In steering the EU through the next six months, Britain's overriding priority must be to restore a sense of equilibrium and purpose. To do that, however, Mr Blair must resist the temptation to present a Europhile face to Brussels and a more Eurosceptic image to Westminster. Nor must he behave as though Britain had all the answers. Europe is a collaborative project at a delicate stage of its development and the great need is for more listening – by all concerned – than lecturing.Reuse content