Mr. Europe?

For a while it seemed Tony Blair might begin his term as president of the European Union like one of those film heroes thrust into leading a squadron on a combat mission while skipping flight training.

Not quite.

It's true the UK prime minister is about to assume the European presidency after his team has declared itself unready to participate in the EU's mightiest new combat assignment. That is, of course, Europe's 1999 rendezvous with its new multi-nation central bank and Euro currency.

After flirtation with joining the money union about the time the first Euro coins are to be minted, Mr. Blair's chancellor of the exchequer blinked. He said London wouldn't join until after Britain's next general election. That would mean 2002 or so.

That, in turn, put the British leader in the position of becoming Europe's rotational chief for the first half of next year while appearing to be something less than a full supporter of its grand project.

Now Robin Cook, Blair's foreign secretary, has tried to reassure leaders and populaces across the channel. He announced that Blair will vigorously support the charter members of the Euro money club even if he doesn't join them for a while. As Blair thus declares his support, Britain's Tories are allowing their old, bitter divisions on the subject to split and weaken them further. Hardly wise party rebuilding.

Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the Euro project's biggest backer, has done his bit to rope London into the enterprise. He urged recently that one of the six seats on the board of the proposed European central bank be reserved for Britain. Given Britain's financial weight, that's only fitting. But it's also a vote of confidence that Britain's economic cycle (interest rates, budget deficit restraint, etc.) will align with the cycles of the main continental powers before too long.

The Treaty of Rome, uniting Europe, wasn't built in a day. Neither has the Euro's debut followed a smooth path. But Blair is wise not to let Britain slip into the role of hesitator in the cockpit if he wants a hand on the controls later on.

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