Leading Article: Kosovo test for Blair

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The Independent Online
ALTHOUGH Tony Blair claims to be a better European than his Tory predecessors, and although he is a refreshing change from sour Europhobic rancour, his actions too often belie his words. He is edging towards British membership of the currency slowly and crabwise, and with a dishonest argument - that membership must be judged purely by British national interest and must take place only when economic cycles are aligned. But there is one area where Mr Blair is even less of a constructive European than in financial policy, and that is foreign and military policy. Here, there doesn't even seem to be electoral calculation in mind. The Prime Minister's continual alignment - there are harsher phrases - with the United States, and indifference to his European partners, looks like a product of instinct.

That was true over the American bombing of an innocent pharmaceuticals factory in Khartoum, which our government slavishly applauded. It was true over the last bombing of Iraq, in which our forces participated and which seems not to have affected Saddam Hussein in any way (since he can bear any number of innocent civilian deaths). And it is true now in Kosovo. There are two errors thrown up by the latest violence there. One is the knee-jerk rage which too often links angry left and angry right. David Blunkett said on Friday that when he heard about the killings in Kosovo last week his first reaction was that savage punishment was needed as immediate revenge, which may be understandable but is no basis for statecraft.

The other is non-interventionism. On the left, this explains away the horrors committed by a Saddam (or even, in extreme cases on the left, of a Milosevic); on the right, it insists that what happens in Bosnia or Kosovo is a struggle in a faraway country among people of whom we know nothing. Mr Blair's real problem is not whether to intervene and where, but with whom. He is, of course, aware of the difficulties of military intervention in the Balkans, whether the efficacy of bombing or the practicalities of committing ground forces. What he never seems to do is to ask the question: what should Europe's policy be? It must be said that the present British government did not create this problem single-handed. Henry Kissinger once said that he would believe in "Europe" when, during an international crisis, he had a telephone number he could call to find out European foreign policy. He had a point, and there is no phone number still.

Here is a difficulty with which all true Europeans must wrestle. There is much talk about a common European foreign and defence policy, but little sign of positive development. French, Germans and Brussels Eurocrats criticise London for half-hearted Europeanism - perhaps we could be generous and say three-quarters-hearted in the case of the Blair government. And yet they are all keener on economic integration within the borders of the European Union than on developing a common policy outside those borders. Nor are the EU's component powers - which is what they remain - in a strong position to preach. British governments have made grave mistakes in recent years, but none as infamous as the encouragement which the French, for fanciful or grandiose reasons of their own, gave to the perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda five years ago.

Much as that deserves bitter reproof, however, the British themselves will only be in a position to preach when they are openly committed to a common European policy. That means first of all detaching London from Washington as politely and firmly as possible. Mr Blair and Mr Cook might even find there is political advantage in this, since the posture of President Clinton's poodle is no more popular than it is edifying. It then means taking the lead in Europe, not least by explaining that a common foreign policy must be common. Melbourne's saying to his Cabinet, "Is it to lower the price of corn, or isn't it? It is not much matter which we say, but mind, we must all say the same thing", may sound skittish, but it expresses a truth about collective responsibility, at home or in the wider world. Phone numbers apart, Europe will truly be a union only when all its members say the same thing.

Over the past decade, a country on the European continent, and on the borders of the European Union itself, has torn itself apart, while "Europe" looked on with impotent dismay. While Dubrovnik was being bombarded in 1991, a woman there said to a television reporter: "We expected so much from Europe, and we got so little." It was a more eloquent condemnation than anything our own Europhobes have ever said. That woman and her neighbours, together with the people of Bosnia and Kosovo, deserve an answer.