A Winner at Home, Britain's Premier Takes On Europe
Blair meets Clinton in London today. On the agenda: a bigger role on the Continent.
LONDON — Britain's new Prime Minister Tony Blair, with backing from President Clinton, is bidding to give his country a more influential and possibly decisive voice in the affairs of Europe.
Close aides say he is determined that Britain will play a leading role in the European Union (EU) while also defending his country's interests amid attempts by other European governments to arrive at unified financial, economic, and foreign policies on a high-speed timetable.
In a week when France's center-right government is seeking to regain its balance after Sunday's stunning electoral setback, Mr. Blair will use his huge parliamentary majority at home, and his deepening friendship with Mr. Clinton, to impress EU governments that the days of British political isolation are past.
The prime minister is expected today to extend a rare honor to Clinton by inviting him to address a meeting of the British Cabinet.
Blair's aides note that the two leaders already have a good working relationship. Key aspects of Blair's election campaign, including his markedly "presidential" leadership style, were patterned on Clinton's successful presidential campaign last year.
The aides say the prime minister will report to Clinton on what they called the"highly successful" summit talks Blair held last week with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and other EU heads of government in Noordvijk in the Netherlands.
An official close to British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said Tuesday that Clinton was "frustrated" by the failure of former Prime Minister John Major "to establish a constructive relationship with the EU. We have reason to believe he will back us in our efforts to start afresh."
In his pursuit of a dynamic European role for Britain, Blair is showing willingness to accept advice from a wide range of sources.
In a move that astonished even his close advisers, and seemed to presage a readiness to take a hard line with the EU when necessary, the Labour leader held secret talks last week with former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on diplomatic strategy toward the EU. Their meeting took place on the eve of Blair's summit meeting in Noordvijk.
Blair and Baroness Thatcher refused to say afterward what they had talked about. But government sources say the new prime minister wanted to take advantage of Thatcher's 12 years of experience of dealing with EU leaders, during which she came to be known as the Iron Lady.
Blair has already signaled that he disagrees with much of the thrust of EU policy. He will cite Britain's strong economy and his government's massive electoral mandate won in the May 1 general election as reasons why his European partners should listen hard to what he says.
Any thought that the youthful Blair will be a pushover for other European leaders bent on blurring or eliminating national frontiers has already been dispelled.
He told the Noordvijk summit that Britain would retain its own frontier controls and thus not participate in attempts to promote free movement of peoples within the EU.
Even more striking is his wish to achieve what he described to a Noordvijk news conference as a "radical shift in Europe's horizons." He urged the EU to be "less concerned with itself and its institutions and more interested in issues that mattered to people," including cutting unemployment.
A few hours after the summit, a Blair aide summed up the prime minister's approach: "He believes the biggest electoral win in modern British political history has strengthened his campaign for a Europe shaped along British lines."
Following the center-right's poor performance in the first round of France's general election, officials at 10 Downing Street were even more optimistic that Britain's leverage in Europe was on the increase after years of bickering between London and Brussels, the EU headquarters.
Their view was based on the calculation that even if the French conservatives were able to win the second round and maintain control of the government, French authority within the EU has been undermined.
At a summit meeting next month, EU leaders will be urged by Chancellor Kohl to agree to a strict timetable on steps toward a single European currency by 1999.
Until now, Germany and France have been walking in lock step toward economic and monetary union (EMU). Now however, the apparent weakness of the French government could give Blair the grounds to advise the rest of the EU that they should delay their EMU timetable in the interests of EU stability.
Blair's aides say the single currency question will be fully discussed during Clinton's six-hour visit to London today. Clinton may come to back the view that France's political difficulties make it necessary to think again about the rigorous pace Germany has been setting for achieving a single European currency.