Cautious, gleeful EU awaits Blair

Sarah Helm opens a series on the election from overseas with the view from Brussels

Sarah Helm
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:07

In the meeting rooms and watering holes of Brussels, frustration and anxiety hang heavy in the air. The Eurocrats are frustrated as they wait for Tony Blair. And they are anxious about what his accession to power in Britain might bring.

At the Amsterdam summit in June the European Union aims to finalise a new treaty - one intended to bring about deeper integration and prepare for the accession of new countries from east and central Europe.

Since the start of the negotiations a year ago, other member states feared that little progress would be made while John Major and his government were in power. They knew then that Europe would have to wait for the British election, and the possible arrival of Tony Blair, before making more progress over power-sharing.

Their fears about Mr Major proved correct. Not only has Britain refused to accept proposals for any deeper integration, his government set itself on a clear collision course with Europe by launching the beef war.

Now, the waiting is nearly over. Glee at the prospect of ousting those "arrogant", "difficult" Conservatives is barely concealed in Brussels. But as victory for Mr Blair appears to come closer, other Europeans are beginning to wonder whether a Labour government will really bring about substantial change.

Few dispute that Tony Blair, and Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, have adopted a positive tone. They have stressed the need for Britain to influence the course of EU development by taking a lead at the heart of negotiations instead of carping from the sidelines.

Mr Blair's ideas of "stake-holding" were well received on the Continent, where they chimed with trends towards social partnership. And the fact that Labour will sign up to the social chapter should help to heal one running sore.

Already Labour has closer ties with like-minded politicians in other member states than the Tories ever built. Mr Blair is young, speaks French and appears to be instinctively pro-European. "It will be a relief to have someone on the other side of the water to talk to," say the Dutch. There are even those who believe he could emerge as a lead player on the European stage.

At a time when the drive towards federalism is faltering and euroscepticism is spreading, the present European political elite appears to be losing its way.

"It is an opportune moment for a new kind of leadership," says one senior Danish official. "Blair could be the counter-weight to Helmut Kohl. We need a strong alternative voice."

Most seasoned EU-watchers, however, temper their hopes with a heavy dose of caution. During the election campaign it is accepted that Mr Blair cannot risk fuelling Euroscepticism among his own potential voters by launching new initiatives on Europe. Nevertheless, officials in Brussels are disappointed that, despite Labour talk of taking a "constructive" role, there is little evidence yet of any constructive thinking.

Furthermore, Labour looks set to take the same stand as John Major on some of the most controversial areas of the inter-governmental conference, particularly on pooling more powers in areas of defence, asylum and immigration. But above all there is the increasingly sceptical approach towards economic and monetary union.

The launch of EMU will produce the most far-reaching economic and political integration yet seen. "If we don't join, we will effectively be outside the union. We will be outside the decision-making block," says Roy Denman, former EU ambassador to Washington.

If Mr Blair keeps Britain out of a single currency he will have no chance of taking a leading role in shaping Europe. Rather, he will simply have to carp from the sidelines, like British leaders before him.

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