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13 August 2001

Has Tony got the wrong friends?

The Prime Minister's flirtation with far-right politicians is undermining the cause of social democr

By Robert Taylor

Tony Blair and his family may be spreading their summer holidays this month between Mexico, Cornwall (for a few obligatory days) and southern France, but avoiding a return to salubrious villa life in Italy does not mean that the Prime Minister has lost his appetite for consorting with the rich and powerful of the political right. On the contrary, Blair is finding the company of European political leaders who have flirted with fascism increasingly congenial.

Step forward Silvio Berlusconi, the far-right Italian prime minister and multimillionaire media tycoon. Hardly a European-style social democrat, yet he appears to have found a soulmate in Blair, who was among the first to send him a congratulatory telegram on his election in May. The Italian has never disguised his deep admiration for Blair.

In interviews during the British general election campaign, Blair expressed equally warm feelings for Berlusconi, seeing him as a potential ally in the emergence of a more pragmatic European Union. At the European Union summit in Gothenburg in June, the two men worked happily together, especially on economic reform issues. Blair’s press spokesman described the new entente as part of the Prime Minister’s “positive engagement strategy” to boost Britain’s influence in Europe.

Step forward also Jose MarIa Aznar, the conservative and former supporter of General Franco, who now heads the Spanish government. It is true that he has rescued Spain’s right wing from the vestiges of Francoism, but he is ideologically closer to Blair than to anybody in the Spanish Socialist Party. Indeed, over the past three years, Blair has discovered that his own robust views are more in line with those of Aznar than with those of the European left, not least on social and economic questions. In 1998, the two men issued a joint declaration suggesting that Britain and Spain shared a common agenda on the need to deregulate employment as a means of creating more jobs.

Now the two prime ministers are working in harmony on the preparation of a new neoliberal reform programme, which will be unveiled during Spain’s presidency of the European Union in the first half of next year. This new document is expected to attack the social-market models of mainland Europe, enthuse over wealth creation and entrepreneurship, and call, at least implicitly, for the dismantling of existing EU-wide social protections that safeguard workers from exploitation. Berlusconi can be expected to endorse such contents, which owe much of their intellectual origins to the wonders of the American model now being championed by President George W Bush and his compassionate conservatives.

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To the growing alarm of his old friends on the social democratic left, Blair is becoming more than ever one of the leaders of the right-wing neoliberal assault on the social achievements of Continental Europe. The centre-right policies of Aznar and Berlusconi are very much in tune with new Labour’s credo of all power to the wealthy and the private sector, next to no redistribution of income, and mean-minded measures to deal with the poor, the disabled, lone parents, the old and the hard-core jobless.

All of this has saddened Blair’s former ally – Germany’s chancellor, Gerhard Schroder. It already seems a long time ago when their chief advisers, Peter Mandelson and Bodo Hombach, drew up the infamous Third Way/Neue Mitte document. That manifesto was little more than a hymn of praise for free-market capitalism which called for the creation of a new class of working poor and openly enthused over corporate profit and greed.

But from the beginning, many German social democrats were troubled by both the language and the content of that joint declaration. Hombach and others insisted that the German trade unions should be given an honourable mention in the manifesto as partners in the important Alliance for Jobs strategy for the pursuit of full employment. But Blair, Mandelson and his friend Roger Liddle, No 10’s so-called expert on European affairs, made it clear that they would not tolerate an equally friendly reference being made to the British trade unions.

Since then, Schroder seems to have moved away from the neoliberalism of that manifesto. This year, he agreed to sensible legislation designed to extend works councils to smaller companies in a positive gesture to the German trade union movement. He has also produced legislation making it harder, in the aftermath of the Vodafone/ Mannesmann affair, for German firms to push through hostile takeover bids.

Even more grievously, in June, the German chancellor abandoned his friend Blair and declined to help block opposition to the European Union’s information and consultation directive. This milk-and-water regulation seeks to establish a statutory right for workers to be informed and consulted before companies carry through substantial change. After the unilateral imposition of closures and redundancies in Britain at Ford, Vauxhall, Coats Viyella and Corus, where the workers concerned first heard of their demise from the media, Blair might have been expected to see the sense of forcing firms to accept an obligation to inform and consult employees before sacking them. But this was not to be.

The divergence between the Prime Minister and Schroder has been accompanied by a widening gulf between Blair and most of the rest of the centre-left leaders in mainland Europe. He has never felt at ease with Lionel Jospin, who has ridiculed the Third Way concept while accepting the need for competition in his own market economy. In fact, to the chagrin of the British government, the French law to restrict working hours has boosted productivity and competitiveness, and brought about the modernisation of workplaces.

In addition, Jospin’s bold programme to reduce youth unemployment has proved more successful than Blair’s New Deal. But then, across the European Union – from Denmark to Ireland, from Holland to Sweden – we have seen governments embrace economic programmes for action that have been based on strong values of solidarity and social equity.

Increasingly, Blair and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, argue – when they can pluck up the courage to mention Europe at all in speeches – that what the EU needs to do is to implement so-called radical liberalisation of its financial and social institutions. This is more soundbite than substance but, if it means anything, it is the Americanisation of Europe.

In this dubious cause, Blair can be expected to deepen his alliance with Aznar and Berlusconi. Indeed, the three look like being President Bush’s only friends in Europe. All seem relaxed – even enthusiastic – about the president’s nuclear missile defence plan, another vital issue over which the new European axis finds common cause with Republican America.

There remains a problem for the Prime Minister. Outwardly, Labour claims to be a democratic, centre-left party. While it may be true that, under Blair, it has moved inexorably to the right, serious doubts remain over whether the majority of his Labour Party colleagues can swallow what he is trying to do.

The more Blair’s politics resemble those of his Italian and Spanish friends, the greater the difficulty he may have in reconciling the labour movement, which he so openly despises, to what he regards as the new realities of European power.

When Blair came to office four years ago, he was seen as an admirable role model by many social democrats in Europe. Now he is regarded as the son of Thatcher, trying to turn the Continent into a replica of the United States. But social democracy on the Continent is a dynamic and modernising creed that continues to reconcile social justice with economic success. It does not need a dose of American neoliberalism in order to survive and prosper.

Blair will not succeed in his ambitions, not least because the countries he wants to see reformed can boast of more impressive economic and social achievements than can Britain under his rule. But by cosying up to the likes of Berlusconi and Aznar, the Prime Minister threatens to undermine the existing social democratic consensus. It is in nobody’s interests – except, possibly, those of the European right – that he should succeed in this.

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