At the Amsterdam summit, Tony Blair’s love for Europe, and its for him, are about to face their first serious test


WHATEVER becomes of Tony Blair’s efforts to get the marriage of Britain and Europe to work, there is no doubting his efforts to seduce, before the planned consummation at the European Union’s inter-governmental summit in Amsterdam on June 16th-17th. On June 11th Mr Blair flew straight from prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons to the Elysée to court Jacques Chirac, France’s president, ahead of the meeting—the fifth time his feet have touched soil across the Channel in six weeks in office. And European leaders have traipsed through Downing Street: Belgium’s Jean-Luc Dehaene and Wim Kok, the Dutch prime minister, who heads the EU’s council of ministers, were only the latest.

Compared with his predecessor, Mr Blair is well-placed to play suitor. He has glamour on his side; the European media have treated him as a superstar, which makes him a man with whom every European politician wants to be seen. He has a mandate too: a huge Commons majority which means he can afford to ignore his party’s handful of Eurosceptics. With the departure of Peter Shore, a former minister, from the Commons, Labour sceptics no longer have a public voice of weight. Mr Blair’s own long-time prediction—that the British public would become less Eurosceptical once their government was—looks good because his approval ratings, the highest in the history of opinion-polling, make voters ready to follow where he leads.

The agenda for Amsterdam is unlikely to cause serious tension. To be sure, there is the usual horse trading to be done on the detail of a deal. Although it is now accepted in Europe that Britain will not join the Schengen agreement on frontiers, concurring on the detailed language to enshrine this has proved awkward. Britain is prepared to contemplate more qualified majority voting in the EU, but it remains more hostile than most of its European partners to other integrationist moves.

In the background, the European ban on British beef exports continues to niggle. On June 11th a committee of Brussels vets turned down yet another British proposal to guarantee the safety of its meat, and Britain has issued threats to ban European beef from Britain too.

Even more difficult is the question of jobs. Everyone wants a new employment chapter in the Amsterdam treaty,—but the gulf on the substance is wider than the Channel. Gordon Brown, the chancellor, went to a meeting of European finance ministers on June 9th armed with a plan to stimulate job creation, including less bureaucracy and more help for small businesses. But at the centre of the Brown-Blair view on jobs lies the need for labour-market flexibility, where the government’s task is to promote employability rather than employment: “A labour market responsive to economic change”, as Mr Blair puts it, to avoid European misunderstandings.

Difficulties in translation

Few European leaders agree with him. They dread the so-called Anglo-Saxon economic model. Lionel Jospin has just been elected prime minister of France on a programme that called for a cut in the working week, the opposite of what labour-market flexibility requires. “Your Mr Blair is to the right of me,” commented one EU prime minister after meeting him recently. He happened to be a Christian Democrat conservative.

Mr Blair in his turn finds his European colleagues a bit odd. He thinks too many of them are bogged down in the institutions of the EU, and unwilling to think radically about how to reconnect them with the man in the street. Having made an effort to master the detail of the EU as well as the big picture, he wishes they would do both too.

But perhaps the most serious potential rift lies in the European single currency. True, Britain thinks it may join eventually. “If it proceeded on time and if it then proved a success, then in the long run Britain could not stay outside,” says Robin Cook, the foreign secretary.

But if the single currency goes ahead, it would now be astonishing if Britain joined in the first wave. Gavyn Davies, an economist with Goldman Sachs who is close to the government, argued at a Centre for Economic Policy/Economist forum on June 9th for staying out of the first wave. Politically, that would give Mr Blair time to prepare public opinion for the referendum he has promised before joining any single currency. Economically, it would give time for the British and European economic cycles to move back into synch. Mr Davies argues that Britain’s best course would be to firm up Mr Cook’s pledge, promising eventual membership, but delaying it for 5-15 years.

That being so, Europeans suspect that Britain would love to exploit the present problems with the single currency to delay the whole project. Not so, Mr Blair’s allies insist. The prime minister’s hunch is that the project will go ahead (though Mr Cook publicly puts the prospects at no higher than 50-50). If it does, it would be better for Britain if it works than if it collapses, with all the collateral damage that would cause. So Mr Blair promises to try to influence its design for the better. But will his new partners understand him?

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