This is Europe, not America

In Vienna Tony Blair damned the Europhobic press. Ian Gilmour applauds him
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The Independent Online
FOR THE past month the newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, as well as Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail, have been campaigning against Europe even more stridently than usual. The cause of their current frenzy is ostensibly the tax harmonisation advocated by Oskar Lafontaine and his "socialist" (actually, social democratic) friends. The real focus of their campaign, however, is - as it always has been - the very idea of Europe. In Vienna on Friday for the EU summit Tony Blair condemned the Europhobic newspapers and served notice that he was would confront them ahead of a referendum on the single currency. This will do nothing to mute the shrillness of the sceptics, of course. On the contrary, Fleet Street's campaign against Brussels will become more hysterical.

For most of the last half-century, Britain has had two options: to be a whole-hearted member of Europe or to be a satellite of the United States. The Murdoch and Black newspapers (which make up what Michael Heseltine calls "our North American press") have consistently opposed closer ties with Europe. As Mr Black has lived here for a dozen years, obviously cares about the country and does not own a British tabloid, it is a little unfair to bracket him with Mr Murdoch. But, since his views seem to be essentially North American, it is probably legitimate to do so. The attempts of the two men to push Britain out of Europe have little to do with Britain's national interests and much to do with their own interests. Their empires are too powerful to have much to fear from any "nation state"; the European Union, on the other hand, might well tame them.

Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black are probably the greatest obstacles to Britain joining EMU, though Mr Murdoch might in some circumstances withdraw his opposition to monetary union. Mr Black is unlikely to do the same. His opposition to EMU is evidently more principled than Mr Murdoch's - and his newspapers cannot be accused of xenophobia. This country, he believes, should join the United States, Canada and Mexico in the North American Free Trade Area (Nafta), while disengaging as far as possible from Europe. He supports this view with two main arguments. The first is that remaining in the European Union involves an unacceptable loss of "sovereignty", while lining up with the United Stares would involve no significant loss of it; the second is that Britain has far more in common, politically and economically (and presumably socially), with the US than it does with Western Europe.

Being in the EU clearly involves some sacrifice or merger of sovereignty but, as Churchill put it at The Hague in 1948, "it is also possible and not less agreeable to regard it as the gradual assumption, by all nations concerned, of that larger sovereignty which can also protect their diverse and distinctive customs and characteristics, and their national traditions". Clearly Britain has more power and influence as a member of the EU than as an "independent" offshore island (which even Mr Black rules out) or as an appendage of the United States.

In the days when America had a foreign policy based on its national interest, to be an appendage was not too malign a fate. Now that it has one scarcely worthy of the name, largely derived from the pressures of domestic politics and national minorities, such subordinate status is not an alluring prospect. Britain would lose little sovereignty, but its power and prestige would be virtually nil. Mr Black seems to admire the recent foreign policy of the United States - surely a difficult feat. One does not have to go all the way with Gore Vidal and think that "irrelevance is now the American condition, both as a global empire and an incoherent domestic polity". Yet America acts abroad, the columnist William Pfaff recently wrote, according to "what corporate interests and electoral combinations dictate".

Nevertheless, Mr Black approves of this and resents what he regards as European meddling in foreign affairs, believing that "Europe possesses neither the geopolitical strength nor the political maturity" for an "early re-emergence of European leadership in the world". He may well be right about the geopolitical strength, but does he really think that America is now a prime example of political maturity? Mr Black's remarks about foreign affairs are an implicit admission that Britain's accession to Nafta would be an acceptance of continued flunkeydom to the United States. (Incidentally, he demonstrates his rupture from reality by thinking that Newt Gingrich's support for our joining Nafta is in British eyes a recommendation.)

Mr Black's second argument is an extension of his extreme right-wing political and economic opinions, which he mistakenly thinks are widely shared in this country. He is convinced that Franco-German social market capitalism "subsidises unemployment and disincentivises work", and that what he thinks of as the Anglo-American way of conducting these matters is infinitely superior. In fact, between 1960 and 1997 the growth rates of the European Union and the United States were the same. France's GDP per capita is virtually the same as America's, and France, unlike the US, has a healthy trade balance.

For Mr Black the lowest possible levels of taxation, social expenditure and regulation are the ideal. In attempting to equate British politics with those of the United States (and his own), he misrepresents both the past and the present. Leaving aside the last 20 years, Britain has since 1688 always been one of the most advanced countries in Europe politically and socially. In the 19th century it was the most liberal major European state. Between the two world wars, it introduced the leading social services in the world, and continued in that vein after 1945. We have never been in the vanguard of the right. And even today, although the country certainly moved in that direction in the 20 years of Two-Nations Conservatism, it is still only just in sight of right-wing America.

For the time being, the United States unquestionably has the most powerful, efficient and prosperous economy in the world; and it is incomparably the strongest military power. But, despite those achievements and many other estimable qualities, the US has some disturbing features more appropriate for a Third-World country than for the world's only superpower. The richest 1 per cent of American households own nearly 40 per cent of the country's wealth, and the richest 20 per cent nearly 80 per cent of it. America spends more on health - 15 per cent of GDP - than any other Western country, but unlike them has no national health service. More than 40 million Americans have no health insurance. In 1997 the infant mortality rate for black babies was the same as that for infants in Bosnia and worse than for those in Costa Rica. In its mortality rate for children under five, the US ranked 25th in the world, equal with Cuba and behind the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Israel. The Clintons did initially try to improve matters, but their plan was destroyed; American insurance companies get one-third of all the money spent on healthcare, a bonanza so valuable that to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on defeating the Clintons' project was well worth their while. Clinton learnt his lesson and started cutting welfare.

However congenial the American polity is to Conrad Black, the claim that Britain is closer to America's politics and economics than to Europe's Christian and social democracy is as much of a myth as the "special relationship". Though Mr Black is not to blame for it, probably the only sphere in which the two countries greatly resemble each other is their newspapers, something that can give neither much pleasure. Closer links with the United States would doubtless benefit a few - but only a few - multinational corporations, but it would not benefit the rest of the country. Apart from American aid in the Falklands war, 50 years of British toadying to America has brought us little return (according to the former American ambassador in London, British intelligence was passed on to the IRA), only a certain amount of deserved contempt from other countries.

Nobody wants to end the Atlantic Alliance, but the United States is not an alternative to the EU. Partnership with equal nations is far preferable to subordination to a much stronger power. Britain's present and future lie in Europe. Nevertheless, a strong possibility remains that the ideological and corporate interests of over-mighty press barons will prolong Britain's European flounderings. Sir Roy Denman, an astute observer, has dubbed Rupert Murdoch Britain's real prime minister in things European. Britain's other prime minister has sent out mixed signals. All too frequently Tony Blair seems to revel in being President Clinton's favourite poodle. Sometimes, however, he casts off his Monica role and Marianne takes centre stage.

Mr Blair returned from Vienna yesterday knowing that the press hysteria about tax harmonisation - not to mention Britain's contributions to the EU budget - is largely a product of Murdoch-Black self-interest. British tax rates will continue to be lower than our Continental partners'. That, however, is not necessarily something to be proud of. All it proves is that they treat their poor in a more civilised way than we do.

This is an edited extract from an article published in the current issue of the 'London Review of Books'.