Politics - John Kampfner charts Blair's loss of status in Europe

The first British leader in a generation to command true influence in Europe has squandered it by pl

Tony Blair's European dream is unravelling. His position on Iraq and his proximity to George Dubbya have seen to that. Strangely, it is not the principle that is the problem but the tactics he has used.

In Whitehall, there is concern. In European chancelleries, there is bewilderment. People are asking how the first British leader in a generation to exercise true influence on the Continent could squander it so quickly?

This is what the Prime Minister said last May: "I regard it as one of my tasks to say to people the whole time, don't pull apart Europe and America . . . don't tell Britain to choose between Europe and America because that isn't sensible for us." He liked that phrase so much he repeated it time and again.

No matter what happens with the war, Blair has done exactly what he vowed to avoid. Events in the run-up to his Camp David meeting with Bush have forced the Prime Minister to show his hand and to show where his priorities, if not his heart, lie.

The overriding sentiment in Europe is disappointment. The goal of a common security and defence policy is in tatters. Once again, Europe has failed to speak with a single voice. Smaller countries that find common cause with Britain on a number of issues in the EU, from economic liberalisation to reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, realise that Blair will no longer enjoy the benefit of the doubt across the council table. There is despondency that Blair has allowed the relationship between Europe and the US to be portrayed as one of younger brother to older brother, to be admonished when it misbehaves. This sadness turns to anger when Blair plays the righteous brother.

Attempts will now be made to narrow the gap. Jacques Chirac will try to find warm words for Blair at their summit on 4 February in Le Touquet. Deals on defence and terrorism co-operation are in the making. But the Franco-British balance has shifted. Diplomacy during Chirac's first term was riddled with errors. His qualified message of support to Bush straight after 9/11 contrasted with Blair's instinctive "shoulder to shoulder". Since his re-election last May, however, Chirac has found a new lease of life. His "tough and critical friend" stance towards the US infuriated the hawks, but it captured the mood in Europe - and in much of Britain, too.

Even if Chirac does eventually fall into line and agree to a second UN Security Council resolution, he will see his approach as vindicated. It is not a matter of ethics - France wants a share in Iraq's oil - but of pragmatism. Chirac has provided a counterpoise to Blair, the "staunch ally and best friend". There is appreciation that Blair has tried to be a moderating influence on Bush. The difference in the French and British positions was never that great. The difference in the way they have been projected has been huge.

In Germany, Gerhard Schroder has no interest in advertising his recent difficulties with Blair, partly in appreciation of Blair's discretion during the German election campaign last August. Then, Schroder was on the ropes and the Americans were furious with him over the anti-war rhetoric that secured his last-minute victory. Blair did genuinely try to calm passions. He urged Bush to understand the German chancellor's predicament, and suggested he could "deliver" him back into the fold. He hasn't been able to, and therein lies the key to Blair's new-found weakness. Schroder's own weakness has produced an unintended consequence. Germany is, more than a decade after unification, finally showing that it has the self-confidence to wean itself off the protective embrace of America.

Even if the Security Council does fall in behind a war and even if that war is short and successful, the unpalatable truth for Blair is that it will take some effort to regain the status he has lost. A Blair diminished in Europe has serious domestic repercussions. Since the Chirac-Schroder stitch-up on the CAP, on the eve of the Copenhagen summit last November, he has resorted to briefing against Europe. It is not quite a return to John Major's embarrassing warbles, but it has allowed the tabloids to revert to old stereotypes.

And what will it do for that other big decision, on the euro? With the assessment of the five tests due by June, rarely has a less propitious deadline been set. On what basis could Blair now trumpet tying us closer into a Europe that he himself feels less and less comfortable with? How would he answer if people asked: what have you done for Europe, and what has Europe done for you? But in an aside that speaks volumes for the current state of relations, one senior European diplomat offers this thought on the euro: "Britain doesn't have a problem now with surrendering sovereignty. It did so long ago to America."