“A New Dawn has Broken has it Not?” New Labour and the European Union
“A New Dawn has Broken has it Not?” New Labour and the European Union
Abstract and Keywords
Tony Blair was elected to the House of Commons in 1983 at a time when the Labour Party was committed to withdrawal from the European Community (EC). Following the defeat of 1983 and the election of Neil Kinnock as Labour's new leader, the policy of the party began to change. It has been a feature of British politics that British governments have been favourable to the EC and oppositions much less so. The period from after the 1983 election until 1992 was one in which the commitment of both main parties to making a success of Britain's EC membership gradually converged. Neil Kinnock moved the Labour Party's stance from ‘withdrawal’ through ‘withdrawal as a last resort’ to a commitment to Britain's successful membership. However, as the 1997 General Election approached, hostility to the single currency, and indeed the European Union as a whole, grew in the Conservative Party while Labour's approach became more positive.
Tony Blair was elected to the House of Commons in 1983 at a time when the Labour Party was committed to withdrawal from the EC. That was not his own view and, canvassing in Sedgefield in the General Election campaign that May, he discovered that it was not really the view of many of his future constituents either.
Following the defeat of 1983 and the election of Neil Kinnock as Labour’s new leader, the policy of the party began to change. It has been a feature of British politics, from Macmillan’s first application to join the Common Market, that British governments have been favourable to the EC and Oppositions much less so. The period from after the 1983 election until 1992 was one in which the commitment of both main parties to making a success of Britain’s EC membership gradually converged. Neil Kinnock moved the Labour Party’s stance from “withdrawal” through “withdrawal as a last resort” to a commitment to Britain’s successful membership. Neil Kinnock’s approach to the Maastricht Treaty in Parliament in 1991 shows the extent of the transformation. The main substantive point of disagreement between Government and Opposition was over the Social Chapter. Then, and later, Labour were able to make political capital from what they portrayed as an opt-out government putting Britain needlessly in a minority of one. In practice, both parties had promised a referendum on entry into the single currency and neither was ready to recommend membership. However, as the 1997 General Election approached, hostility to the single currency, and indeed the EU as a whole, grew in the Conservative Party while Labour’s approach became more positive.
Nonetheless, what is interesting is the similarity, rather than the differences, between the manifestos of both parties for the General Election of May 1997. Both talked about avoiding a federal Europe, of a partnership of nations, of focusing on enlargement, CAP reform, the single market, and foreign policy. The Conservative manifesto kept open the option of joining the single currency while stressing the importance of the opt-out and of a referendum. (p.162) The Labour manifesto was not dissimilar on EMU. It talked of the “formidable obstacles” in the way of Britain joining in the first phase should EMU go ahead in 1999. It emphasised the triple safeguard of the need for a favourable decision by Cabinet, a vote in favour in Parliament, and then a referendum. The one significant difference in the manifestos was over the Social Chapter. The Conservatives pledged to maintain the opt-out secured at Maastricht. Labour pledged to sign up to the Social Chapter.
This caution on the part of the Labour Party reflected the lack of popular support for EMU, the need to avoid alienating the Murdoch press whose backing Tony Blair had secured when he visited Rupert Murdoch in Australia the previous year, and an unsurprising reluctance on the part of New Labour to believe that their lead in the opinion polls would translate into victory on the day.
This caution was reflected in the one speech Tony Blair made on foreign policy during the campaign in Manchester on 21 April. The speech was entitled: “A New Role for Britain in the World”. On Europe, Tony Blair said:
There are three choices open to Britain. The first is leaving; the second is in but impotent; and the third is remaining in but leading…Of course we must stand up firmly for Britain’s interests. And, as I have always made clear, we must be prepared to stand alone in support of those interests if necessary. But it is misguided to make perpetual isolation the aim of our policy…I want Britain to be one of the leading countries in Europe…This is a good moment for Britain to make a fresh start in Europe. For the other Europeans are not involved in a Gadarene rush to a European super state. In fact there is a good deal of unease at the pace and direction of integration in many continental countries, not just Britain. And if there were a desire for a super state, we would not hesitate to stop it in its tracks. We want a Europe where national identities are not submerged and where countries cooperate together, not a giant and unmanageable super state run from the centre.
It will be part of our negotiating position at Amsterdam that there should be agreement on our five key points for promoting jobs and prosperity [single market, enlargement, CAP reform, tackling unemployment and creating flexible labour markets, making a reality of foreign policy cooperation]…We will consider the extension of Qualified Majority Voting to areas where it is in Britain’s interests to do so whilst retaining the veto in areas where it is essential…I believe we can use our membership of the social chapter to bring about change across Europe…The hardest question remains EMU. It is not yet certain that it will go ahead on 1 January 1999. I can see formidable obstacles to Britain joining in the first wave if it does go ahead, not least that Britain is at a different stage of the economic cycle to the rest of Europe…There must be genuine sustainable convergence between the economies that take part…We will have no truck with a fudged single currency. However, to rule out membership forever would destroy any influence we have over the process. Therefore we will keep our options open. And when we make our decision, we should do so on the basis (p.163) of a hard headed assessment of our national economic interest…The issue between the parties is not the position on EMU. Our position and the formal position of the Conservatives are the same. The real issue is one of leadership and clarity. John Major’s agonies over the single currency illustrate the real dividing line on Europe. It is not federalist or anti federalist—neither of us wants a federal super state. We agree on the maintenance of the national veto in vital areas like tax and treaty change. We agree on the single market. We agree on our attitude to the single currency and the referendum. The real dividing line is between success and failure. The fundamental differences lie in Party management, attitude and leadership.
A day later, writing in the Sun, Tony Blair said: “Let me make my position on Europe absolutely clear. I will have no truck with a European super state. If there are moves to create that dragon, I will slay it.”
Once in government, New Labour had little time for reflection, as opposed to decision. The negotiation on the Amsterdam Treaty was into its last few weeks. The first thing the government had to do was signal its new approach to its partners. There had been considerable contact between the Labour Party in Opposition and like-minded fellow Europeans, especially the Dutch. Robin Cook, who became Foreign Secretary, was up to speed on most of the detail even before Election Day. In any event, given his capacity, unequalled in my experience by any other politician except Harold Wilson, to read fast and remember everything he had read, he was well on top of the brief by the time he held his first meeting with officials on the subject two days after the election. I recall Robin Cook’s surprise that officials had prepared for him a draft minute to the Prime Minister about the negotiations that so accurately reflected the positions previously announced by the Labour Party in Opposition. Labour had been out of office for eighteen years. Cook himself had never been in government before. I think he expected to find a Civil Service that would try to persuade him to take Conservative positions, whereas what he in fact found was a Civil Service nervously anxious to satisfy its new boss.
Joyce Quin, who had been shadow Europe Minister, had, in the event, been made Prisons Minister in the Home Office. Doug Henderson, who, like Tony Blair, had a North East constituency and had been his companion on weekend train journeys back home from London, became Europe Minister and the man who, less than a week after the election, had the task of setting out the government’s policy at a meeting of the group of member state representatives that had been negotiating the new treaty each week in Brussels. “I come to this meeting as the representative of a new government with an overwhelming mandate”, he said. “One of the most important priorities we have identified is to make a fresh start to Britain’s relations with the rest of the EU and draw a line under the recent past.” He went on to tell Britain’s partners that Britain would
• support an employment chapter in the treaty
• support enshrining a commitment to human rights
• be prepared to see the Petersberg peacekeeping tasks of the EU included among the issues covered by Europe’s CFSP, with the WEU implementing decisions with defence implications
But Henderson warned his colleagues of some areas where the new government would have reservations. “We regard NATO as the primary framework for common defence for all members of the Alliance”, he said. He described cooperation in Justice and Home Affairs as:
probably the area where we have most problems. If there is to be treaty change in this area, the UK will want to see explicitly recognised its right to maintain frontier controls in respect of third country nationals. We will also want arrangements which allow us to work together as fifteen member states whenever possible. In our view this should continue to be inter-governmental cooperation.
Henderson signalled areas where Britain was willing to see movement to QMV: industrial policy, some aspects of environment policy, regional policy, “and Article 216”. This last was the Article governing the seats of the institutions and meant that the traditional British tease of the French, desperate to keep the article subject to unanimity and thus to prevent the abolition of Strasbourg as the seat of the EP’s plenary sessions, was one element of continuity between governments.
The Social Chapter, and Britain’s opt-out from it, had been the main reason why the Labour Opposition had voted against the Maastricht Treaty in the House of Commons. Labour was pledged to sign up to it, just as the Tories had been pledged to maintain the opt-out. But to sign up to the Social Chapter, and to the majority-voting decisions it implied in areas such as working time, was not without problems. The government had to establish their credentials as competent managers of the economy. They could not afford to alienate the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), who disliked the Social Chapter. Some ministers feared that the application of the Social Chapter could cause political and practical difficulties and one of the earliest decisions they had to take, and did take, was to stick to the manifesto commitment and to live with the risk. Against that background, what Henderson had to say was significant, not least because his words had largely been written by Robin Cook:
At today’s meeting, Britain will take a historic step towards signing up to the Social Chapter. We will tell our European partners that we want the rights and benefits (p.165) of the Social Chapter to extend to the people of Britain. We do not accept that the British people should be second class citizens with fewer rights than employees on the continent. We want our people to enjoy rights to information about their company, and parental leave with their family as good as those enjoyed by the staff who work on the continent, often from the same companies. The British people have demanded to share in the benefits of the Social Chapter in repeated opinion polls. Today’s initiative is a democratic response to the wishes of the British people and the interests of British employees. The Social Chapter is not a threat to British industry or British jobs. Dozens of the largest companies in Britain have already broken the Tory opt-out and opted in to the provisions of the Social Chapter. Not one of them has sacked a single worker as a result. A partnership between innovative management and a committed workforce is key to a competitive company. We will test all future proposals for action under the Social Chapter by whether they promote competitiveness and help us to meet our goal of a skilled, flexible workforce. Today’s meeting opens a new chapter in Britain’s relations with Europe. It marks a fresh start in Europe for Britain, working with other member states as a partner, not as an opponent.
The new approach was welcomed by Britain’s partners. They had begun to doubt whether the Conservative government would be able to agree to any changes at all in the Amsterdam Treaty and, indeed, whether British Euro-sceptic opinion might drive Britain to leave the EU altogether. At the same time, they did not see the approach of the British government as a radical reversal of the British position as they would have expected it before the final year or two of Conservative government had skewed things in a more negative direction. In other words, just as in Britain we have a conception of French or German policy on Europe which does not depend on which party is in power, so our partners had and have a conception of British European policy which transcends our own domestic electoral landscape. Indeed, the government had made clear, in Henderson’s statement, that on defence policy, the “communitisation” of justice and home affairs, frontier controls and majority voting on tax, and social security, there was continuity of policy.
An Irish official, Bobby McDonagh, who was part of the group negotiating the Amsterdam Treaty, recalled in his book on the subject (Original Sin in a Brave New World) that the movement by the new Labour government was limited but concluded: “Overall there was a growing sense that a deal at Amsterdam was now on.”
The EU Heads of Government met at Noordvijk, a Dutch North Sea resort, at the end of May for an informal gathering. It was noteworthy for the film star attention given to Tony Blair as, one after another, the Heads vied to be seen and photographed with him. But Blair was not slow to spell out the substance behind the smile. He addressed a meeting of European socialists in Malmo on 6 June. He said: (p.166)
There can be a third way that manages security and flexibility…We will be using our Presidency of the EU next year to put jobs at the top of the agenda—cutting unnecessary bureaucracy for the small firms that are likely to be the main job creators, completing the single market, promoting welfare to work initiatives which bring real jobs within the reach of those now excluded from the labour market—and all the time keeping a watchful eye on the Social Chapter to ensure that it does not jeopardise more jobs than it creates…We do not believe that the Social Chapter means that Europe should seek to harmonise and regulate wherever it can. The crucial challenges to Europe are to be competitive internationally and to create jobs…Employment policy in each country should remain for each government to decide in its own particular circumstances…I want to help shape Europe’s future…But am I satisfied with Europe? Frankly, no. Too many of its concerns and debates seem impossibly remote from ordinary people…How many of our citizens have even heard of the IGC, let alone have the first clue about what we are discussing…So we must find a way to change the focus away from process and onto substance…to stop talking about European theology and start doing things for which real people can see real benefit—jobs, the environment and international security.
These themes were to be something of a leitmotif of the next ten years: a Europe in touch with its citizens, a focus on economic issues, and moderate impatience with the agenda of institutional change that had become the staple fare of the EU. In emphasising the first two of those issues (relevance to the citizen and economic reform), Tony Blair was following a well-established British approach which had begun with Margaret Thatcher. A European audience would not have been in the least surprised to hear a British Prime Minister talk in those terms. They might have been surprised to hear the warning note that Blair struck about the Social Chapter and there was a hint there of difficulties to come.
One immediate difference between Tony Blair and his two predecessors as Prime Minister was that, while he had little inclination for the institutional debate, he was not instinctively averse to institutional change as Margaret Thatcher had been. Nor was the issue, as it had been for John Major, a bear trap ready to be sprung by obsessed backbenchers from his own party. Likewise, while Tony Blair had no natural sympathy for the EP (few members of national parliaments do), he was not preoccupied by it. This meant that the new government could approach the Amsterdam negotiation with a more open mind than their predecessors. They proceeded with caution because they did not want to stir up a media hornet’s nest. They did not need to worry about the state of opinion in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
In the first phase of our strategy in relation to Europe we have transformed the negotiating climate. It is much more favourable to Britain, much more positive. We are now in the second phase which will climax at Amsterdam, which is tough bargaining to transform that improved negotiating climate into an improved negotiating outcome for Britain…I am quite confident that we are going to come away with a good deal.
So it proved. The addition of provisions on social policy and employment was easily agreed, though the new government, like its predecessors, signalled that it was not prepared to move to majority voting on social security measures or measures that would impinge on the national regulation of employment law. The pillared structure, created at Maastricht by the Conservatives, had proved only partly viable. Most member states wanted foreign policy cooperation to remain a matter for decision by governments but most felt that asylum and immigration matters should progressively be moved to the First Pillar, that is, made subject to the normal EC decision-making procedures, involving proposals from the Commission and decisions by majority. Some wanted this for doctrinal reasons; most for practical ones. Unanimity was the bane of decision-making. Moreover, any agreement reached intergovernmentally had to be ratified in some member states by lengthy procedures in regional assemblies as well as national parliaments.
This change was a relatively easy one for the government to agree to because Tony Blair banked the offer which had first been made some months before to allow Britain to retain her separate frontier controls. It was a concession which our partners were obliged to make in order to secure British acquiescence in what they badly wanted: the incorporation into the Community treaties of their own Schengen frontier agreements which had thus far operated outside the EU legal framework. So, Britain (and Ireland because of the common frontier between the Republic and Northern Ireland) retained her frontiers and, with it, the right to determine her own migration arrangements. But Britain also secured the right to opt into the individual frontier and migration measures which the other member states would make among themselves. At the time, it looked like the best of both worlds. In practice, the arrangement has given rise to some friction between Britain and her partners. But, even now, I doubt whether any British government would feel that the disadvantages of not being fully in the same decision-making loop as our partners in this field outweigh the political benefits of being seen to be able to take our own decisions on visa, migration, and asylum matters.
Some of the rationale for Britain’s original position on this issue has in fact changed. The fight against terrorism and international crime is conducted at least as much through good intelligence as through vigilance at frontiers. Frontier controls are anyway largely ineffective in an age of cheap mass travel (p.168) when citizens enjoy the right to move freely within the EU. But Britain’s opt-out from the EU treaty provisions on frontiers has given the government the ability to take the measures it has thought necessary on asylum and visa policy. Moreover, politically, it would still be difficult for a British government to persuade the public that our frontier arrangements could in practice be no better than those of the least efficient member state with whom we shared a common frontier policy. If anything, the enlargement of the Union has made it harder politically to argue that Britain should join the common frontier arrangements.
The Amsterdam Treaty did one of the things that had featured on the list of warning signs of a European state with which Malcolm Rifkind had so irritated the Germans shortly before the General Election. It abolished the procedure whereby, in its relations with the EP, the Council of Ministers had the last word and, in its place, extended the co-decision procedure whereby the Parliament achieved a genuine power of equal participation in decision-making.
This development has caused a big shift in the balance of power inside the EU. Yet it is hard to argue that it has led to anything approaching a European state or that it has either paralysed or undermined effective decision-taking. The old argument used to be that democratic accountability was adequately assured by the Council of Ministers, consisting of politicians who were all elected parliamentarians from their own countries. But the procedures for democratic scrutiny of EU legislation in national parliaments have been, for the most part, slow and inadequate. And it is hard to accept that there should be a directly elected EP and then deny it the powers to do what it is elected to do: represent the interests of the electors. Theory apart, and accepting that the EP has faults, co-decision has led to a more professional approach to legislation by the EP. The quality of individual British MEPs is generally high as is the professional standard of their work. In areas such as financial services, a critically important British interest, the EP has helped advance the British agenda.
At Amsterdam, Tony Blair was cautious on Foreign Policy and Defence. Foreign Policy was excluded from the new arrangements for enhanced cooperation, that is, the ability of sub-groups of member states to cooperate ahead of the EU membership as a whole. At Maastricht, it had been agreed, and written into the treaty, that: “the common foreign and security policy shall include all questions relating to the security of the Union, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy which might lead to a common defence should the EU so decide.” At Amsterdam, after a lot of argument, it was agreed that “the common foreign and security policy shall include all questions relating to the security of the Union, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy, in accordance with the second sub-paragraph, which might lead to a common defence, should the European Council so decide.” (p.169) The “second sub-paragraph” gave a special role to the WEU. As at Maastricht, the position and obligations of NATO members were also explicitly recognised.
Textual exegesis of EU treaties is one way to go quietly mad, only exceeded as a route to hysteria by having to negotiate them in the first place. The nub of the argument lay around the degree of automaticity in the move towards the progressive framing of a common defence policy. As usual, the convoluted formula papered over a gap between those, led by the British, who wanted to ensure the primacy of NATO in European territorial defence and to limit the role of EU forces to peacekeeping tasks, and those such as the French who wanted Europe to assume greater autonomy in defence. The argument was the same as the one made by Mitterrand to John Major six years before.
At the time, this issue was top of the agenda and the one where Tony Blair proceeded with great caution. He did not want to risk a perception that New Labour was unsound on defence (an accusation that had dogged the Party in the early 1980s) or a disagreement with the United States. It was, though, an area where his own instincts told him that he could and should go further over time. He believed that the EU’s perceived failure to match up to its responsibilities in Bosnia had seriously undermined its credibility with its own citizens. The ability to deal with Europe’s internal peacekeeping problems, including by deploying military force, was not the same thing as undermining NATO’s responsibility for defence in the event of external attack.
In due course, European defence was to become the area where Tony Blair moved British policy further than any of his predecessors. He did so out of conviction that Europe had to be able to take action in its own backyard. He was not so concerned by all of the institutional aspects that had preoccupied Britain in the past. And he needed an area where Britain could demonstrate leadership. This was particularly so after the decision in October 1997 that Britain would not join EMU in the first wave from 1999.
The circumstances of that decision and its announcement have been extensively aired in public. While the manner of the announcement was unfortunate, and a harbinger of things to come, the decision itself was not surprising given Tony Blair’s earlier public caution. In retrospect, there was probably never a better time to hold a referendum on entry into the euro. But it remains questionable, even so, whether the moment was good enough. The argument that Tony Blair could, at that stage in the life of the government, “walk on water” overlooks the fact that the government had come within a whisker of defeat in the Welsh referendum on devolution, a less controversial issue than EMU. It would have been a very high-risk strategy for a government, newly elected for the first time in eighteen years, to put its authority on the line so soon and so riskily. To have tried and lost would have put at risk the credibility (p.170) of New Labour as trustworthy managers of the British economy. It would have damaged its standing with Britain’s European partners. As it was, those partners were disappointed but not altogether surprised. They still believed that the British government intended to join at some stage. Their willingness not to push Britain over difficult treaty issues such as tax harmonisation at Amsterdam, and later at Nice in 2000, was partly down to their wish not to make the prospects in a euro referendum harder than they already were.
It has also been argued that, by allowing the Chancellor to set five tests for British entry to the euro, the Prime Minister lost control of the EMU agenda. It is true that the five tests set a framework which gave the economic judgement of the Treasury more importance than if those particular criteria had not been set. But, in political terms, the five tests were no more than a confirmation of the obvious point that the Prime Minister and his Chancellor had to be in complete agreement for there to be any hope of a successful EMU referendum campaign.
I believe EMU was probably always going to be an issue for the second term, in the absence of a shift in public opinion that was never probable. There is equally no doubt that the Prime Minister hoped to take Britain into the euro in the second term. It was he who decided to announce to Parliament, shortly after the 2001 election, that the assessment would be completed within two years. The organisation “Britain in Europe” was established at the government’s behest to campaign for the euro. Tony Blair made no secret, in discussion with other EU leaders, British business leaders, and trusted journalists that he was in favour of Britain’s entry.
In late 2002 and early 2003, scenarios were prepared within the European Secretariat of the Cabinet Office covering, on different timing assumptions, the steps that would have to be taken to legislate for and organise a referendum and to get through the steps necessary to apply for EMU membership. There was never any question of fudging the five tests. But, at the end of the day, the tests were a way of measuring whether the British and Continental economies had converged sufficiently to make EMU membership successfully sustainable for Britain. And that was a matter of political as well as economic judgement. When the detailed research documents which underlay the tests were discussed by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, there was a real debate between them, but I never believed that the issue was one in which the Prime Minister wanted to go ahead immediately and regardless, while the Chancellor did not want to go ahead ever, regardless. But what was clear was that, at the least, the watchword of the government (“Prepare and Decide”) would have to be given some fresh interpretation and impetus if it was not to appear identical to the policy of John Major that had been caricatured as “wait and see”.
(p.171) In the end, the statement that was made to Parliament by the Chancellor on 9 June 2003 did go beyond “wait and see” but not as far as to indicate that the issue was now when, rather than whether, Britain would join. The Chancellor declared that, of the five tests, the one covering the competitiveness of Britain’s financial services within the euro zone had been met. Of the remaining four, those covering investment and employment would, he said, be met if, as we had not, we met the tests for sustainable convergence and flexibility. Although the Chancellor spoke of flexibility in terms of the steps which still needed to be taken in Britain, it was actually the Continental economies he was talking about: “As the persistence of volatility in inflation rates within the euro area demonstrates”, he said, “we cannot be certain that there is as yet sufficient flexibility to deal with the potential stresses.”
It was largely because of the way expectations had been managed from 2001 onwards on both sides of the argument that the Chancellor’s statement was seen by the Press and by Britain’s partners as ruling out British membership during that Parliament. The road show on EMU which was announced never happened. The ministerial committee that was established to monitor progress on the various aspects of convergence to which the Chancellor had committed himself in the House was more virtual than real. After 9 June 2003, the necessary window for joining before spring 2005 was, in any case, effectively closed.
By the time of the 2005 election, the superior performance of the British economy, compared with that of most euro zone economies, meant that there was no scope for winning a euro referendum. The whole issue had also by then been overlaid by the argument about the European Constitution, on which the Prime Minister had promised a referendum. There was some confusion in people’s minds (not discouraged by the Euro-sceptic press) as to whether a vote in favour of the constitution would mean that Britain had thereby signed up for the single currency. The government were obliged to make clear that the two issues were entirely separate and that the euro question would be decided by a separate referendum if the government and Parliament ever decided to recommend euro membership. In the meantime, it was clear that a referendum on the constitution was already more than enough of a challenge. The fact that Tony Blair had announced that he would not lead the Labour Party into the next General Election also contributed to the issue of EMU becoming business that would remain unfinished during his premiership.
At the end of 1998, as parities within the euro zone were about to be fixed irrevocably, we sent from UK Representation in Brussels our assessment of what euro zone membership would mean for Britain’s interests. We estimated that the requirements of managing the euro zone economies would lead to coordination of policy across the board among the member countries. In (p.172) other words, we would start to see those member states determining policy on transport, energy, and probably fiscal policy. In the event, it has not happened. That in turn has meant that there has been no pressure on the government to seek euro zone membership, either from interests within Britain, such as business, or from the other member states.
The decision in October 1997 not to join in the first wave was one of the factors which led Tony Blair to put more emphasis on European defence. It was a combination of conviction and opportunity. He needed to demonstrate to Britain’s partners that he meant what he said about Britain being a leader in Europe. Defence was an area where, from conviction, he believed Europe could and should do more. Action on defence also fitted with his view of an EU effectively led and run by the larger member states. The declaration which Blair and Chirac issued in St Malo in December 1998, following an intervention Blair had made to acclamation at an informal EU summit a few weeks earlier, was seen at the time by France as a commitment to go further and faster in the direction of European defence integration than in practice was possible for a British government for whom doing nothing to weaken NATO, let alone the perception of Alliance interests on the part of the United States, was paramount. Yet, European defence is the principal area of European policy where the Labour government have moved British policy. Today, there is greater integration of European forces, a rapid reaction capability, coordinated planning at European level, and an embryonic headquarters arrangement. Much more importantly, EU forces are involved in significant peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and beyond Europe’s frontiers. This has, not without difficulty, been achieved with the consent of the United States, and Tony Blair played a decisive part in assuring that consent.
The biggest test of Blair’s willingness to move on European defence came in 2003. In April, in the wake of the Iraq War, the leaders of France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium met in Terveuren, a suburb of Brussels, and issued a declaration which announced their decision to set up a joint headquarters to run European defence operations. The plan was declared open to other member states to join.
The plan was the brainchild of Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister, and it immediately set alarm bells ringing in Washington and London. Hitherto, military actions had been run from headquarters which were either under the auspices of NATO or of a country with a significant military planning capacity, such as France or Britain. An embryo European headquarters, separate from NATO, looked like a deliberate ploy to set up France and Germany in particular as a rival pole of attraction to those countries which had not supported the military action in Iraq, or to those who were less preoccupied than the UK by the issue of NATO primacy in territorial defence.
(p.173) The initial British response was to rally opposition to the plan that had emerged from what was dubbed “the Chocolate Summit”. Most member states were wary of it, especially those like the Dutch and Portuguese, with a traditional Atlanticist bent, as well as the new member states such as Poland who had not formally joined the EU but were already participating fully in meetings.
Yet, in September 2003, Tony Blair set a new course. The divisions over Iraq between the French and German governments and their supporters on the one hand, and the British government and its supporters, including the governments of Spain and Italy, on the other, had left a fault line down the middle of the EU. Relations between Blair and Chirac, always on a knife-edge, had come close to breaking point. The much closer relationship between Blair and Schroeder had been placed under huge strain though both men sought to avoid Iraq infecting other issues.
So, in the aftermath of the Iraq War, when Blair and Chirac had a conciliatory meeting at the Elysée, Chirac proposed that the three governments—Britain, France, and Germany—should put their relationship on to a different basis. Chirac had clearly decided that France and Germany could not alone determine European policy: they had tried to do so over Iraq and had failed. Chirac was also convinced that the interests of the large member states would suffer in the enlarged EU. He had no time for the Spanish government under Aznar and a scarcely concealed dislike of Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy. He saw Poland as an awkward partner and the smaller new members as irritants. He had famously given vent to his anger with the smaller member states at a summit under his chairmanship in Biarritz in October 2000. The ill-starred Nice summit two months later was marked by a greater large–small divide than had ever been seen before in the EU.
Out of this arose Chirac’s offer to Tony Blair to work in a partnership of three on the key European issues. The idea had obvious appeal. Tony Blair did not share in any way Chirac’s contempt for some of the new member states. But he did fear that the enlarged EU would be difficult to manage. He also felt that Britain had, for too long, suffered from not having a stable relationship with France and Germany. As a result, he argued, successive British governments constantly found themselves having to argue over every jot and comma of negotiating texts because that was the only way we had of defending our interests. France and Germany could be much less preoccupied by the minutiae because they could always count on each other to recognise and uphold a vital national interest.
No one in Downing Street was under any illusion about the difficulty of making such a policy work. France and Germany had a forty-year history of working intimately together at every level and of making real concessions to (p.174) each other in the interest of agreement. Britain found such compromise much harder, partly because of our practice of micro-coordination, which made it harder for us than for others to change a policy once it had been agreed, and partly because of the lack of deep-seated public support in Britain for the European project. We knew we would have to proceed step by step and with circumspection vis-a-vis our other partners. There were doubts in the Foreign Office and elsewhere about the workability of the policy, not only because of the likely reaction of other partners, but also because of deeprooted suspicions of French policy and motives. I recall writing from Downing Street to Whitehall departments explaining the policy and its rationale and the requirement to make a concerted effort to help it succeed. I saw it as risky, for sure, but an exciting opportunity to put our relationship on to a new footing.
Defence was the first test. Unless the three governments could reach agreement on the wording on foreign and security cooperation in the Constitutional Treaty which was then under negotiation, there was no hope of an overall agreement. France and Germany wanted to include in the Constitutional Treaty provisions which would have allowed a self-appointed group of member states to take action in the defence field in the name of the EU as a whole and without the approval of the entire membership. The idea owed much to the thinking of Pierre de Boissieu, first aired ten years before. Its rationale was, as then, that countries with a serious defence capability and the willingness to act should not be held back by those who were committed to neutrality. The British government was sympathetic to the argument but not the conclusion drawn from it. For Britain, it was essential that any European action in foreign policy or defence had the backing of all the membership. While it was unlikely that defence decisions would be taken without Britain, that was not a risk we were prepared to take, let alone try to sell to the House of Commons. The key to persuading the French and Germans to budge on this issue was to move towards them on the idea of a European headquarters which might, in certain circumstances, be used to control a European peacekeeping operation.
After weeks of intense negotiation, and quite a lot of sucking of teeth in the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence (MOD), an agreement was reached. To Tony Blair then fell the difficult task of selling it to the United States. The Americans, as Mitterrand had warned years earlier, seemed to want to control more as they engaged less. They could not see why we were making concessions to the French, in particular, when a significant number of member states were suspicious of the “chocolate summit” outcome. Tony Blair’s argument in reply was that hostility to the Franco-German scheme was broad but shallow. If Aznar lost power in Spain or Berlusconi in Italy, new governments in both countries might well embrace the scheme, in which case others would follow. (p.175) The drawing power of France and Germany should not be underestimated. It was better to turn their scheme into something acceptable rather than let it gather momentum beyond our influence. In the end, against the views of his advisers and his own instincts, George Bush agreed to trust Tony Blair’s judgement. Having decided to do so, the US Administration backed Britain and resisted all efforts from the British media to persuade them to rubbish what had been done.
I believe Tony Blair’s judgement on this issue has been borne out by subsequent events. Governments in Spain and Italy led by Zapatero and Prodi, respectively, would not have resisted the Terveuren plan. There would have been rival centres of attraction and the route to European defence would have been dangerously polarised. The United States too accepted the wisdom of the compromise.
After such an auspicious start, it was a disappointment that trilateralism failed to prosper. There were three main reasons. First, the UK was the junior partner in a relationship where France and Germany, not surprisingly given their longstanding partnership, determined their joint position before the British entered the room. Secondly, it was harder for Britain to make compromises on other issues in the Constitutional Treaty, especially on judicial and criminal cooperation where the Prime Minister would have had to exercise considerable leverage on Cabinet colleagues to move British policy in the French/German direction. Thirdly, the adverse reaction of the Spanish and Italian governments exceeded our expectations.
Tony Blair had established a close relationship with Jose Maria Aznar, the Conservative Prime Minister of Spain. Together with the Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, they had set in train the Lisbon process of economic reform. By the time trilateralism began, Aznar had already signalled his intention to stand down as Prime Minister at the next election. Even so, he reacted badly and I felt at the time that his relationship with Tony Blair never quite recovered. While Aznar seethed, Silvio Berlusconi erupted. For him, matters were made worse by the fact that Italy held the Presidency of the EU. He felt as a lover scorned, rejected, and humiliated. Interestingly, member states such as the Netherlands were quite relaxed about what had happened. They saw it as natural that the three largest member states should have a confidential relationship. They preferred the three in question to be getting along than to be quarrelling. They asked only that they and other member states should not be presented with outcomes over which they would have no say.
So, Tony Blair was forced to soft pedal. Then, at the European Council of December 2003, Chirac decided that he was not prepared to clinch an agreement on the European Constitution under Berlusconi’s chairmanship. He and Schroeder treated Berlusconi with contumely. Although it was an (p.176) Italian Prime Minister who was on the receiving end of the bullying, it was reminiscent of the treatment meted out to Thatcher and Lubbers by Chirac and Kohl in 1988. It was clear to all of us that Schroeder and Chirac would put their relationship first. Thereafter, two issues dealt a death blow to the cooperation.
Chirac had half promised the French electorate a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty but clearly wanted to get out of any such undertaking. At a time when a referendum was not part of the British government’s agenda, Chirac proposed a pact between France, Britain, and Germany under which none of the three countries would hold referendums. No pact as such was ever agreed but, since Germany has no constitutional provision for referendums, and Britain was not expected to have one, when Tony Blair did in the end offer a referendum, Chirac felt that he had been let down. On top of that, when Schroeder and Chirac sought to impose their choice of candidate to succeed Romano Prodi as President of the Commission, Tony Blair felt compelled, along with a number of other EU leaders to make clear that that candidate, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, would not be acceptable. Chirac and Schroeder chose to ignore the many private warnings they were given that Verhofstadt did not command support. Able as he was, Verhofstadt was considered to be too much of a “federalist”. In this, there were echoes of John Major’s objections to Verhofstadt’s predecessor, Jean-Luc Dehaene, who had been championed by Kohl and Mitterrand, and vetoed by John Major, in 1994. As a result of the Nice Treaty, there was no longer an individual veto on the appointment of the Commission President. The issue was for decision by majority vote. So, when they were told that Britain had no candidate of her own and would be prepared to consider a number of alternatives, the response was that France and Germany had decided that Verhofstadt was to be the next president of the Commission and would push the issue to its conclusion. They did and they lost, very publicly. That was the end of trilateralism.
The experiment in trilateral partnership with France and Germany was the most prominent example of a consistent effort by the Labour government to put Britain’s relationship with her partners on to a new footing. The policy of “step change” as it was known was inaugurated shortly after the 1997 General Election. All Whitehall Departments, as well as British embassies around the EU, were involved in a concerted effort to find areas of new, substantive cooperation with other member states. The work was overseen by a committee of ministers from across Whitehall under the chairmanship of the Foreign Office Europe Minister, and known as Minecor. While the policy did not deliver dramatic results, it did achieve a significant thickening of the relationship in a number of cases. The extent to which joint articles appeared in the European Press co-authored by Blair and another EU Head of Government became (p.177) something of a running gag across the Union. But others started to emulate it. And the very effort of sitting down to find the common ground for a joint article set in train a process of mutual accommodation and understanding that was valuable. The fact that the British government had made the effort was noted. In the case of Ireland, where relations had been cool for obvious historical reasons, the initiatives which Britain took served to break the ice and remove suspicion.
As with all such initiatives, the long-term success of the “step change” policy will depend on the commitment of each generation of ministers and officials. Direction from the top is important. Tony Blair’s negotiating style was different from that of his predecessors. The traditional British negotiating method, especially on issues where Britain had a veto on what others wanted which would be given up only in exchange for concessions by them to us, was to plant the flag, form the thin red line, and hold out against all comers. As one British diplomat put it, Margaret Thatcher would take the wheel of the European car and drive it at full speed to the cliff’s edge, confident that the others would lose their nerve before she did.
This tactic had worked well, but at some cost in personal relationships. Tony Blair, by contrast, was prepared to show his hand earlier in the negotiating game and to use his skill at networking and at riding several horses at once to deliver a result. The technique usually worked. It in turn required a change of tactics by British officials. It also occasionally required officials to interpret what had been said by the Prime Minister for the benefit of foreign colleagues who had not latched onto the new tone. Our EU partners were used to British Prime Ministers who said “no”, either with overstatement in the case of Margaret Thatcher, or moderation in the case of John Major. It took some time for them to get used to the fact that, for example, a comment by Tony Blair that he was not keen on the idea of majority voting for tax issues meant, not that he was open to persuasion, but that he would duck and weave his way to a victory on points rather than seek the knock-out blow.
To be liked is not sufficient, but it helps. Personal relationships at the level of Head of Government are not the key to successful negotiation, but they are important. Margaret Thatcher had few, if any, friends among her fellow Heads of Government. Tony Blair made a concerted effort, especially with the leaders of the other large member states. In the case of Spain and Italy, he found leaders who shared many of his political and economic beliefs. In the case of Germany, he believed that Schroeder was, like him, a Third Way politician. When the two governments produced a joint document on the subject, which bombed in Germany, the limits of cooperation became clearer. Schroeder rarely repaid the personal and political investment Tony Blair made in the relationship.
(p.178) I have no doubt that Schroeder liked Blair but, in the end, the importance of the Franco-German relationship took precedence. Even after the negotiation of the Nice Treaty, when Schroeder felt that Chirac had traduced him by not agreeing to increase the number of German votes in the Council of Ministers to make them commensurate with the increased population of the united Germany, the two men made a conscious effort to repair their relationship. They were, Schroeder and Chirac, birds of a feather. They gave the impression of being in politics because politics was what they were good at, not for what politics would allow them to achieve. In any event, both in France and Germany, being on good terms with one’s most important neighbour was good politics, just as being the closest friend of the United States was good politics in the UK.
Nicolas Sarkozy, admittedly not the most impartial witness, reportedly said of Chirac: “Avec lui, on n’est toujours qu’un ennemi ou un esclave.” Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s book La Tragédie du President, from which that quotation comes, paints a picture of Chirac as a politician paralysed before the economic and social problems confronting France, a leader of the right with instincts of the centre left, a man who, having won 82% of the popular vote in his final re-election to the Presidency concluded that, having achieved the support of virtually all French men and women, he should make a point of doing nothing to offend any of them.
Chirac is a man who rarely forgave those who crossed him and there were times when Tony Blair did cross him. But he seems to have taken against Blair from the start, probably seeing in him the leader Chirac might himself have been: attractive, popular, and with a programme of action he was determined to implement. Blair, without seeking it, readily stole the thunder of the old guard. Moreover, his vision of Europe was one in which the economic reform which he practised at home was to be sold as a project to the EU as a whole. The Blair government was active in Africa and the Middle East, regions where Chirac saw himself as the elder statesman.
Iraq was to prove the most divisive issue between the two men. Chirac disliked George W. Bush from the start, though he had been something of an admirer of his father. A reflex anti-Americanism would probably have led him to oppose the war in Iraq even if his own knowledge and judgement about the region had not led him to predict much of what subsequently happened. But it was not just the British action in support of the United States that riled him. It was the fact that Blair could carry with him around half the rest of the membership, including the governments of Spain, Italy, and Poland.
Before then, there had been the famous quarrel in October 2002 when, at a European Council in Brussels, Chirac turned on Blair, accused him of (p.179) being the rudest man he had ever met and proceeded publicly to cancel the forthcoming Anglo-French bilateral summit. At the time, most commentators thought that the argument arose because Britain had been wrong-footed by Schroeder and Chirac who had, without consulting Britain, fixed between themselves the budget for agriculture up to 2013.
It is true that the two men had done just that, as the price France was prepared to pay to allow enlargement to go ahead. It is also true that Schroeder had been out-negotiated by Chirac and that the British government was presented with a fait accompli which could have been overturned, if at all, only by putting the enlargement at risk. If we made a mistake at the time, it was in not appreciating just how far mutual self-interest would lead Chirac and Schroeder to put behind them the differences which had caused a breach between them at Nice two years earlier. But we knew there were contacts between the two governments to which we were not privy, and Tony Blair was right not to take on himself the blame for busting the Franco-German deal and thus, the enlargement of which Britain was the principal champion. However, when Blair arrived in Brussels and went straight to a meeting with Chirac, the latter was beside himself with satisfaction at the agreement he and Schroeder had just reached. There were, he said, three parts to it: the deal on agricultural spending, the necessity for Britain to give up her rebate and the postponement until the big budget negotiation of 2005/2006 of any agricultural reform. In other words, the big package of CAP reforms which the Commission had put on the table and which was due to be decided by majority vote, by agriculture ministers, in 2003 would be postponed by two to three years and then be determined by Heads of Government by unanimity.
I never saw Tony Blair lose his self-control in any meeting, although this was one occasion when those of us accompanying him were reaching for our jawbones which were somewhere near the floor and, in my case at least, hoping that, just this once, Blair might deliver himself of a Thatcher-like retort. He, probably wisely, refrained from doing so. But the following day, in the European Council, he set about resisting Chirac’s brazen attempt to derail the reform of the CAP. He was forced to do so single-handed. The package he was defending was the brain child of the Commission but its President, Romano Prodi, was not prepared to stick his head above the parapet. By contrast, frantic messages came to the British delegation from the Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, begging Blair to fight the good fight. He was also privately encouraged by the German Foreign Minister, Joshka Fischer, who told Blair that Schroeder had put himself out of the game by his unwise deal with Chirac of the previous day, a deal that German officials had sought, without success, to renegotiate when they discovered the detail of what Schroeder had conceded.
(p.180) Blair fought and won, using as part of his argument the fact that Chirac seemed ready to sacrifice the interests of the poorest countries for the sake of the CAP. This barb struck home and provoked Chirac’s angry response. Less than a year later, the Agriculture Council agreed, by a majority, the reform package that Blair had saved, including the move to the single farm payment which was one of the most significant reforms so far achieved.
Given this episode, conducted in full sight of all the membership and therefore of the media, and the way in which the anti-French card was played in the British media the following spring on the eve of the Iraq War, it is perhaps surprising that trilateralism was ever attempted and that it achieved even as much as it did. Its one notable success, the agreement on defence issues, would have aroused Press and political opposition in Britain had Tony Blair not been able to sell the project to the US President. For not until the referendums on the Constitutional Treaty did any other European leader have to confront the suspicion of the EU that dogged Tony Blair’s time in office.
All of Tony Blair’s speeches about the EU had in common the theme of Britain as a successful and leading member of the EU. That those speeches did not have more resonance or success is down to a number of factors: the scepticism of much of the British media, especially the Murdoch press on whose support the government had been able to count since 1996; the perceived differences on Europe between Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street which meant that few other ministers were willing to speak on Europe for fear of offending either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor and the fact that, after the Iraq War, the political capital needed for a sustained campaign on Europe was in short supply.
Tony Blair was accused by the Press of speaking about Europe, and Britain’s place in it, more frequently abroad than at home. But if he chose a foreign platform, as he did in Warsaw in 2003, it was to stress just how far Britain’s interests were bound up with those of her partners. The Warsaw speech contained a classic Blair European rallying cry:
For Poland as with Britain, our strategy should be: get in, make the most of it, have the confidence to win the debate not be frightened by it. Do we believe that the Europe our people want is a Europe of nations not a federal superstate? Yes. Do we believe Europe must reform economically to succeed? Yes. Do we believe Europe and the United States of America should be allies? Yes. Are our arguments good ones? Yes. Can we win the debate? It is up to us. But great nations do not hide away or follow along, stragglers at the back. They win. They have the confidence that comes not from arrogance but from a true understanding of the modern world.
What was striking about the speech was its underlying theme, summed up in the sentence: “So: you in Poland, we in Britain, are once again contemplating (p.181) our future in Europe.” Poland was about to become a member of the EU and was facing up to the unknown. Britain had already been a member for thirty years.
Two years earlier, in Birmingham, Tony Blair had addressed the basic issues surrounding Britain’s membership. He said:
The purpose of this speech is to argue: that Britain’s future is inextricably linked with Europe; that to get the best out of it, we must make the most of our strength and influence within it; and that to do so, we must be wholehearted, not half-hearted, partners in Europe. We have a vision for Europe—as a union of nations working more closely together, not a federal superstate submerging national identity.
He went on to describe the many occasions when British governments had made the wrong judgements in their relations with their European partners and made what was probably the most direct statement about sovereignty since Macmillan’s pamphlet, quoted in Chapter 1, of forty years before:
Those opposed to Britain’s role in Europe argue about sovereignty: that the gains we have made are outweighed by the fact that in many areas sovereignty is no longer absolute. My answer is this: I see sovereignty not merely as the ability of a single country to say no, but as the power to maximise our national strength and capacity in business, trade, foreign policy, defence and the fight against crime. Sovereignty has to be deployed for national advantage. When we isolated ourselves in the past, we squandered our sovereignty—leaving us sole masters of a shrinking sphere of influence.
To this, however, he added a classic British codicil: “It is true that British governments have shared sovereignty over some decisions. But we have retained control over our immigration policy and national border controls, our tax, defence and foreign policies—and will continue to do so.” But Tony Blair then returned to his earlier, bolder theme:
I want a sovereignty rooted in democratic consent. Rooted in being, in this century, not just a national power in shifting alliances, but a great European power in a lasting Union. A Union of nations, of democracies with shared goals, delivering shared peace, stability and prosperity for our citizens. Ours will be a sovereignty rooted in being part, not of a European superstate, but of a proud nation, proud of its identity and of its alliance in Europe.
Almost exactly a year later, in a speech entitled “A Clear Course for Europe”, Tony Blair set out, again in greater detail than had been done by any of his predecessors, how he saw the relationship between the intergovernmental and the supranational in Europe:
We want a Europe of sovereign nations, countries proud of their distinctive identity, but co-operating together for mutual good. We fear that the driving ideology (p.182) behind European integration is a move to a European superstate, in which power is sucked into an unaccountable centre. And what is more a centre of fudge and muddle, bureaucratic meddling, which in economic terms could impede efficiency and in security terms may move us away from the transatlantic alliance. So, for all these reasons, our attitudes have, historically, been characterised by uncertainty and that has bred in our psyche a feeling that Europe is something done to us by others, not something we do with others. Now we have an historic opportunity to put our relations with the rest of Europe on a more serious footing and choose not to hang back but to participate fully and wholeheartedly. Europe itself is about to undergo profound change…Europe’s rules are having to be rewritten. At the same time, crucial debates on European defence and the European economy are under way. All these developments will have a vast impact on Britain…Now is a moment when isolation from decision-making is not just pointless but immensely damaging…First, we must end the nonsense of “thus far and no further”. There are areas in which Europe should and will integrate more: in fighting crime and illegal immigration; to secure economic reform; in having a more effective defence and security policy. Britain should not be at the back of the file on such issues but at the front…Second, we should understand that our opposition to Europe as some federal superstate is not a British obsession. It is in fact the reasonably settled view of most members of the EU and, more importantly, of their people…Thirdly, however, the answer to the second point is not to reach for inter-governmentalism as a weapon against European institutions—again, if not a traditional British position, certainly perceived as such—but to recognise that Europe is and should remain an alliance of European and national Government. The very purpose of having a Council is to recognise that ultimately Europe represents the will of sovereign states. The key purpose of having a Commission with its own powers of initiative and a Parliament and Court organised on a European basis, is that we also recognise that we need supranational European institutions for Europe to work i.e. for that sovereign will to be implemented effectively. The two are not in opposition to each other. It is the two together which are necessary for the unique union of nations that is Europe to function.
Looking back, it is even clearer than it was at the time, that the Prime Minister, and a succession of courageous and relatively short-lived Europe ministers, were the only ministers speaking in these terms. Tony Blair did not carry single-handed the burden of negotiation in Europe: other ministers were deeply engaged. But it was he who bore the burden of trying to educate public opinion and to change it. This was especially hard in a media world where little was reported without first being spun, not by the government, but by the editorialists in the media itself.
Against this background, it is not surprising that the Constitutional Treaty risked becoming almost as much of an incubus for Tony Blair as the Maastricht Treaty had become for John Major.
a proper Constitution for Europe, one which makes it clear that the driving ideology is indeed a union of nations, not a superstate subsuming national sovereignty and national identity. This should be spelt out in simple language. A new Constitution for Europe can bring a new stability to the shape of Europe—not a finality which would prevent any future evolution, but a settlement to last a generation or more.
A year later, in Warsaw, the Prime Minister explained why he was opposed to a referendum on the Constitution: “If the Convention or IGC represented a fundamental change to the British Constitution and to our system of parliamentary democracy, there would be a case for a referendum. But it does not. The truth is the argument…against a European superstate is being won.”
In the spring of 2004, a few weeks before the EP elections in which the Conservatives were expected to make gains, Tony Blair decided to concede a referendum. He was persuaded by the argument that was put to him by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, that when agreement was reached on the Constitution and that agreement was put by the government to Parliament in the form of enabling legislation, the Bill would be amended by the Conservative majority in the House of Lords to require a referendum before ratification could take place. The government, so Straw argued, would not have time to use the Parliament Act to overturn the vote in the Lords in advance of the next General Election. Labour would therefore go into the Election on the back foot on the issue while the Conservative Party would present itself as the party which trusted the people. If the government lost seats in the election, it might be forced to concede the referendum anyway. In other words, better to jump than to be pushed.
Whether a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty would have been winnable in Britain is one of the “ifs” of history. The polling evidence available to the organisation “Britain in Europe” with which I was associated after I left government service in the summer of 2004 suggested that, if twenty-four other member states had already ratified, then fear of isolation might induce the British electorate to vote in favour as well. But the odds were against a “yes” even so.
In the event, Britain was saved by the bell that tolled in France and the Netherlands in May 2005. But it was a bell that signalled the end of round one, not the end of the match.
It fell to the British government, in its Presidency of the EU in the second half of 2005, to try to pick up the pieces of the Constitutional debacle. Tony Blair’s brilliant speech to the EP in June, in which he likened what had happened to the battle of Jericho, with the people of Europe sounding the trumpet at the city walls, was largely, like most of his speeches, his own work. Despite the hopes of some, it was beyond any one Presidency to repair the city walls (p.184) and, in the event, Tony Blair, in his second and final Presidency of the EU, did what British Prime Ministers do best: he solved a budget crisis, preserving the British abatement won by Margaret Thatcher twenty-one years earlier, and he set the EU its most significant challenge of modern times: how to tackle the crucial issues of energy dependency and climate change. In that respect, the one-day summit at Hampton Court was much more significant than most allowed at the time. Just as Margaret Thatcher can claim, with Jacques Delors, to have done more than any other leader to put the single market on the European agenda, so Tony Blair can claim, with Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, to have done more than any other EU leader to put energy and climate change at the top of the European agenda.
The final word of this chapter about the Labour government and the EU should probably go to Tony Blair himself. In a valedictory speech on Europe in Oxford in spring 2006, he said that his vision of the EU was the same as that of the founders of Europe; “ever closer union among freely cooperating sovereign governments”. In that misquotation of the provision of the Treaty of Rome and its call for “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, Tony Blair summed up in a phrase what had been a remarkable continuity of view between him and the two Prime Ministers who preceded him. The last chapter will look at their legacy.