Philip Stephens: Britain needs an Atlanticist Europe

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: October 22 2004

The immediate political price paid by Tony Blair for his support for George W. Bush in the Iraq war is obvious to all. Mr Blair's government has lost the trust of much of the British electorate. For all his determination to serve a third full term in office, the prime minister's future remains the subject of stubborn speculation within his own party. The intense political controversy this week about the redeployment of British troops to support American forces in central Iraq has testified again to the war's capacity to wreck the government's efforts to return the focus of politics to its domestic agenda.

Behind Mr Blair's choice over Iraq lies a bigger strategic failure. In a week or so, the 25 nations of the European Union will sign a second treaty of Rome, endorsing the Union's recently negotiated constitutional treaty. This time Britain will be among the signatories. But hardly with enthusiasm. Every opinion poll says that, on present trends, British voters are likely to reject the new treaty in the referendum promised by the prime minister before ratification. Thus a leader who started out in office committed to ending decades of ambiguity and ambivalence about Britain's place alongside Europe's leading powers could yet be the one who presides over still further disengagement from the continent.

As the late Hugo Young*, the Guardian writer and contemporary historian, wrote in This Blessed Plot, a magisterial history of Britain's turbulent relationship with Europe, Mr Blair is as comfortable in his European skin as any postwar British leader. From the outset of his premiership, Mr Blair embraced the foreign policy formulated by Harold Macmillan, the then Conservative prime minister, in the wake of the humiliation of Britain's retreat from Suez in 1956.

The leitmotif of Macmillan's strategy was that Britain had to combine a special relationship with Washington with active engagement with the leading powers in Europe. Charles de Gaulle, France's president, initially thwarted the ambition by vetoing Britain's first application to join the then Common Market. But more than any other subsequent prime minister, Mr Blair took to heart Macmillan's admonition that Britain's strategic interests lay in acting as a pivotal power, always avoiding a final choice between the US and France and Germany. Over Iraq, he made that choice.

So the painful paradox now facing Mr Blair is that he started out in 10 Downing Street determined to rebuild Britain's standing and influence in Europe and has ended up as a prime minister more committed to a special relationship with Washington than any but Margaret (now Baroness) Thatcher.

Yet a vital lesson of the Iraq war should be that Britain needs the EU in order to have a balanced relationship with Washington - an alliance, as Mr Blair once said, based on partnership rather than subservience. I do not doubt that Mr Bush has genuinely appreciated Mr Blair's support. And I have heard senior American officials say that Mr Blair's British critics have tended to underestimate the influence the prime minister has exercised in the White House. But Britain should not delude itself that the American approach to its ally is anything but ruthlessly pragmatic. US foreign policy has never left room for sentimentalism.

I am not among those who believe that Britain has to make an existential choice between the US and Europe - that to be a full participant in the counsels of the EU demands that it make enemies of friends in Washington. On the contrary, Britain's economic and security interests lie in an Atlanticist Europe.

Looking around the EU of 25, there are plenty of others who share that basic ambition - Germany and Italy as well as the former communist states of central and eastern Europe. I also sympathise with some of Mr Blair's doubts about the multipolar world promoted by Jacques Chirac, the French president. Is French obsequiousness in Beijing so obviously preferable to British deference in Washington? The breadth and depth of the transatlantic community of values is sometimes exaggerated, but it is hard to see how a Europe detached from America could feel more secure.

For all that, Britain's reflexes need to be as European as they are American - Mr Blair cannot forever define his ambitions in Europe in terms of what is acceptable in Washington. Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, is right when he says the traffic on Mr Blair's fabled bridge across the Atlantic is too often one-way. The prime minister is accustomed to taking America's views to the capitals of Europe. He should more often take Europe's views to Washington.

Here we encounter another paradox. The future of Britain's European policy is now enmeshed in the outcome of the US presidential election on November 2. The conventional wisdom is that a victory for Mr Bush would be politically the most comfortable for Mr Blair. In fact, the prime minister needs John Kerry to win. A Democratic White House would give Mr Blair an opportunity to rebalance Britain's twin relationships with Europe and the US.

Sure, the transatlantic alliance cannot now be resurrected in its original postwar form. The collapse of communism has dissolved the glue long provided by the Soviet threat. Europe is no longer at the centre of America's geopolitical interests; and the American guarantee is no longer the sine qua non of European security. But a Kerry presidency would provide the opportunity for, if not the certainty of, a new relationship between the US and Europe. Britain's strategic interest lies firmly in the re-establishment of a cohesive alliance.

The Iraq war has been emblem as well as cause of Britain's estrangement from its most powerful European neighbours. Mr Blair lives with a history that has shown Britain fail consistently to reconcile a longing to reclaim its past greatness with recognition of the realities of its present role. The prime minister must also acknowledge his own failures to make Europe's case to the British electorate. Even as Mr Blair reaffirms his commitment to his alliance with the Americans in Iraq, it has never been more apparent that Britain must rebuild its relationship with the big powers of Europe.

* This column is an edited extract of the inaugural Hugo Young memorial lecture delivered by the author at Chatham House.