Why Europe needs the British awkward squad

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There are only three things which a British Prime Minister really needs to know when trying to get his or her way in Europe. The first is that the European Union is, in the last instance, run by France and Germany. The second is that everything will always end in a deal, which will be more or less satisfactory to everyone involved (but remember rule one). We'll come back to the third rule later.

Tony Blair got a lesson in these (somewhat unpalatable) European realities in Luxembourg this weekend. He wanted to strongarm his way into the club of countries running the single currency, even though he doesn't (for the moment) want to join monetary union itself. No dice, responded the French; the Germans shook their heads; and Mr Blair was forced to back away from some of his more extreme demands, though he has maintained some access to the mysteriously-titled Euro-X committee.

In the process, he irritated a lot of people, though that is frankly by the by. Nobody goes to these summits to make friends. Each of the leaders around the table has had his tantrums over the years.

But Mr Blair, of course, is inescapably British, and the British have a bit of a history at these events. We are only too often on our own, or in a minority, and consequently we are accustomed to being on the sharp end of the deal that inevitably ends every summit. More to the point - as far as our partners are concerned - we have a record of table-thumping, hectoring, holding out and so on. We are the awkward squad, not just because we frequently hold a minority view, but also because we don't do our deals gracefully.

To some extent this is all very admirable: we go down, but we go down guns blazing. C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. It's not very productive and it's not that useful in the longer term to the pursuit of British interests.

Mr Blair, of course, has said he wants to transcend this unhappy pattern of events. He has claimed a place for Britain at the head of the table, as the leader in Europe. That has irritated people in a more important way, and the antics in Luxembourg will have made it a bit worse. Who the hell does this Mr Blair think he is?

There are reasons why British ministers act like this. Europe is very different from Westminister. We lack a domestic political tradition of compromise. In British politics, once you are elected, you get to run the country, and precious few people can get in your way, as Mr Blair demonstrated last week. British politics is adversarial. The rest of Europe is more used to compromise, consensus, coalition and deal-making.

Because of our historical experience, we lack insight into the European process; we started late and we still don't quite get the whole thing. The British political classes vacillate between regarding the EU as a fatuous irrelevance, or a deadly threat to their survival. And we find the Franco-German dominance of the EU hard to stomach, since it sits ill with our own rather solipsistic view of the world.

All very well, then, for Mr Blair to trumpet British leadership of the European Union, but the leaders of the other 14 nations have quite a lot of experience of London's delusions of grandeur. Perhaps that is why Chancellor Helmut Kohl reminded the Prime Minister of some basic realities in Luxembourg, encouraging him to salute the French tricolour thrice, and the German flag once.

None of this means we should shut up and do what we're told; Mr Blair was quite right to argue his case. And that brings us to the third rule that British Prime Ministers need to remember in Europe: Britain does have a crucial role to play, and without it, the Union won't, can't work.

Over the past decade the British critique of the EU has increasingly gained force, and indeed been taken on board. We do have influence, and France and Germany, as well as other nations which share our ideological perspective (especially the Scandinavians) rely on a British counterweight. But the British style of assertion - which is often unilateral, boastful and unrealistic - does not go down well.

Mr Blair has, in truth, the best opportunity of any leader since Edward Heath of playing a leadership role in Europe. He has a hefty majority, he has a whole five-year term stretching out ahead of him, and he has the British presidency of the EU, starting in January. There are plenty of problems on the agenda - enlargement, reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the budget - where a British perspective will be crucial.

There are already some indications that things will be different in Europe under Labour. The Luxembourg row was, after all, about Britain wanting to opt in to something, rather than out. But that is a legacy of the last government: we are lagging behind, and we have to fight to keep up with the big players.

A degree of British leadership - or at least, British assertion - will be welcomed, neccessary even for the next year. But it's as well not to shove that down the throats of the other EU leaders. What they really want to see, for the moment, is a renewed British desire to participate, and to do so on the same terms as everyone else, neither seeking special treatment nor wanting to opt out.

But above all, remember rules one and two. Both of the last two Prime Ministers believed that Britain had a mission in Europe; neither understood the realities of power well enough to carry it out.