Politics - John Kampfner sees Blair's foreign policy collapse

To make the case for Europe, the Prime Minister will have to show foresight and zeal, commodities th

Over the past few days, the two pillars of Tony Blair's foreign policy have collapsed. His pro-Americanism failed to prevent George W Bush carving a deal of utmost danger with Ariel Sharon. His pro-Europeanism failed to prevent a retreat in the face of baying sceptic hordes.

This has been a truly dispiriting sequence of events, for unlike Iraq, the Prime Minister's instincts over Europe and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been fundamentally sound. Where he needed to show patience and political restraint, he has done the opposite. Where he needed to show tenacity and political courage, he has done the opposite. Iraq is the flip side of the announcement of a European referendum. He would quite simply not have been forced to do it, had his reputation not been already so damaged. The Prime Minister did not even try to put a positive gloss on the decision to hold a plebiscite, because his heart is not in it. He and his people know it and that is why they have been so uncomfortable.

There was one legitimate argument for the referendum, and that was the consequence of mistaken tactics - the inconsistency of approving popular votes for relatively trivial questions of local mayors but not for broader issues of European governance. Those countries that embrace plebiscites as a matter of course find it hard to be selective about their use. Blair rested his argument on precedent: the Conservatives had not asked for public endorsement for Maastricht or for other significant European treaties, so why should he?

However, as one government official put it: "People found it difficult to understand why we were in principle for giving voters a say on some issues, but not on this one."

There was no little schadenfreude in the British camp last December when the Brussels summit - due to agree a constitutional deal - collapsed. For the first time the UK could not be blamed. It was the French and Germans on one side and the Spaniards and Poles on the other - a classic case of New Europe standing up to Old Europe. But months before the terrorist bombings that changed the government in Spain and the direction of its policy, Downing Street's Europe adviser, Sir Stephen Wall, was warning Blair that the British position was untenable in the longer term.

After Madrid, Jack Straw and Gordon Brown, whose discreet alliance is deepening, reinforced those warnings in a series of conversations, including phone calls to the Prime Minister while he was on holiday in Bermuda. Blair was in no state to resist.

Blair will now have to front a referendum campaign he does not want. Brown will have to advocate a constitution he does not want. Both are in difficult predicaments, but as ever both are in it together. Brown has never been comfortable with the fundamental issue of the primacy of EU law. But such would be the political magnitude of a defeat, that he would not want to take over at the helm at a time of crisis. This time the Chancellor does not have the comfort blanket of his personal veto on the euro to protect him.

For the government to succeed against the alliance of newspaper magnates, the Conservative Party and prominent financiers it will have to make the case for Europe with a vigour that it has so far singularly failed to do.

For Blair to wrest back the momentum he will have to do far more than pick holes in Michael Howard's position. He will have to show foresight and zeal, commodities that have been lacking on Europe from the moment he took office. After all, this was a problem ministers did see coming. Government officials admit that from the start of the convention negotiations in February 2002, they saw the potential for anti-European horror stories. "We did try to make the positive case, but we could not get people interested until the tabloids started to have a go last summer," said one aide - a familiar but unhappy case of tails wagging dogs.

The referendum on the constitution will serve as a proxy for a referendum on the euro currency. Knowing that he cannot fight tomorrow's battle, the Prime Minister is having to settle for yesterday's. Both 1975 and 1997 are being revisited.

European leaders are disappointed. Over the past year Blair ignored their well-founded caution over Iraq. He was complicit in the Americans driving a wedge between France and Germany and the rest. He portrayed himself as Europe's special envoy to Bush, but on areas where he and the Europeans did agree, such as the road map for the Middle East, his views did not prevail in Washington. Now he has made the constitution more difficult to secure.

For all that, European leaders' public complaints about him remain remarkably muted. They see a government under Blair, however weak, as the best that Britain can offer them.


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