At his strangely low-key end-of-year press conference yesterday, the Prime Minister seemed oddly reluctant to talk about Europe. The European Union was nowhere to be found in his opening statement, and he had to be coaxed by questioners to talk about either the British presidency, now coming to a close, or the budget agreement he had brokered at the eleventh hour last weekend. Britain's EU presidency over, it seems, the dangerous subject of Europe can be consigned to the back burner, where this avowedly pro-European government prefers to keep it.
What a difference the audience makes. Just the previous day, Mr Blair had appeared before members of the European Parliament in Brussels. Confident, combative, uninhibited, the Prime Minister seemed to be in his element. It was a pleasure to hear a British politician speaking so unapologetically as a European. His exchanges with Nigel Farage of UKIP were especially choice. Although he sat "with our country's flag", Mr Blair scolded him, "you do not represent our country's interests". He followed up with the curt rebuke: "This is 2005, not 1945."
This quality of repartee is a timely reminder of the rhetorical skills that brought Tony Blair to the top of British politics. But it is a sad reminder, too, of the enthusiasm for Europe that Mr Blair brought to Downing Street eight years ago and has increasingly kept under wraps. It also poses the question: why is it that Mr Blair can speak so eloquently about Europe on the other side of the channel, but seems so diffident about defending a pro-European stance at home?
The speech Mr Blair delivered to the European Parliament on the eve of the British presidency was one of the most accomplished statements about Britain's future in Europe to have come from a British politician. For Mr Blair, it may have been the closest he will ever come to mastering "the vision thing". It drew high praise even from some of his harshest critics on the continent. And perhaps the Prime Minister might have carried on as he started had not the London bombings yanked his attention back to security issues at home.
Regrettably, past performance suggests that this would not have been so. Earlier promises of a national roadshow to "sell" the benefits of the EU constitutional treaty never really materialised. Once France and the Netherlands had rejected the treaty, ministers made no effort to preserve even the most necessary elements of it in another form. And the way Mr Blair scuppered a budget deal in June by clinging to the British rebate suggested that his prime concern was to play to the gallery of Eurosceptics at home rather than to try to win over the British public to a compromise.
Six months on, that compromise was reached. Even if the cost to the Exchequer is marginally lower than in June, however, the diplomatic cost could be higher. Among the British proposals was for the new EU members to take a cut in the funds they receive for development. This was no way for Mr Blair to treat countries that shared many of his ideas about the future complexion of Europe and had been among his few allies over Iraq. The proposals were instantly rebuffed; the perceived slight may be less easily forgotten.
By being so timid about the EU on his home turf, however, Mr Blair sells himself, and Britain, short. The deal finally struck in Brussels was a reasonable compromise, and the decks are clear for Austria's presidency in the new year. Not only the deal but Mr Blair's handling of it were praised in countries, such as France and Germany, which are habitually sceptical of Britain's European credentials. The balance of our EU presidency was positive. Mr Blair should be less bashful about saying so.Reuse content