Blair's last stand
Tony Blair is feeling distinctly unsentimental about his last appearance on the world stage as prime minister, at this crucial summit. He will be centre-stage not only because it’s the end of 10 years of family photos and late-night deals, but because Britain is one of the two countries making it difficult to replace the constitution.
A lot is at stake. While European leaders waver between predicting a crisis if there’s failure and the admission that life would go on, it is very clear that it will be seen by many as a monumental failure if there is no agreement. It would almost amount to a humiliation for Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. And for the new boy, President Sarkozy of France, failure would be almost as bad. Allies of Tony Blair say that’s why it’s right that he, not Gordon Brown, negotiates. He can make the most of his personal relationship with those two leaders and take the hits on Gordon’s behalf. And, yes, they have been speaking nearly every day about this summit.
Mr Blair thinks reaching an agreement is touch-and-go. But there is one advantage to negotiating in Brussels, in his view. The horridness of the Justus Lipsius building, standing on the main dual carriage way through the centre of the city, focuses minds and makes leaders want to leave as soon as possible. But he is in no doubt that this will be tough, and his message to other leaders will be uncompromising.
Britain has already won a great deal of what it wants. The word “constitution” abandoned. A “reform treaty” in its place. The title “foreign minister” dropped. But he will tell the other presidents and prime ministers that he must get not 90% of his demands but 100%. This makes me think that an agreement must be just about in the bag. But some of his demands seem almost calculated to offend. For instance, he wants it made clear that Javier Solana, or whoever becomes whatever it is they decide to call now the new foreign affairs chief, is just a servant of the prime ministers and presidents of the European Union and can’t go off and make policy on their own.
There’s no doubt some countries feel sour towards Britain. Earlier this week, in Luxembourg, I was at a news conference held by the Czech deputy prime minister. When one journalist referred to “the constitution” he wagged his finger and said with a smile, “The treaty you mean”. Some of the journalists erupted. Spanish and Germans objected, with genuine passion: “But you signed it! If it was good two years ago, what’s wrong with it now?” If that’s what mere hacks feel, imagine what the politicians say. I tried to draw a senior British diplomat down this route, suggesting the British red lines were all about domestic politics not about the national interest, as perceived by the government. Urbanely, he replied there was no difference. Not for diplomats anyway.
Mr Blair intends to be a great deal more forthright. He is unapologetic that his problem is with the home front. It’s one of the reasons he wanted to negotiate at this summit, rather than hand over to Gordon. He will tell his counterparts from other countries that, yes he signed it two years ago but there’s no point agreeing to something if the government is going to be forced into a referendum. It would mean another two years of uncertainty, and if the referendum was lost Europe would be back at square one in 24 months’ time, with some saying they had to start all over again. His message will be: “Look guys, do you want a deal or not?” There is no point in him agreeing to anything that comes in beneath the bar he has set up.
Some will argue, as do the Conservatives, that he has set the bar artificially low, knowing that after a great deal of huffing and puffing he can jump it with ease. This is certainly true about some elements of the “red lines”. No-one has suggested, recently, that the veto on tax should go. But it’s a red line. There are other subjects like making sure Britain isn’t out-voted in policing and justice which are not in the bag, but where there is an outline agreement that is unlikely to come unstuck. But other areas, like protecting British labour law from interpretation by European courts, is trickier. Mr Blair may demand an assurance the Charter of Fundamental Rights will only apply to European institutions, not countries’ national law. Yet there is currently an insistence in the draft treaty that it will be legally binding.
Making the case
There is no question that even if Mr Blair wins every single one of his demands and there is icing on the cake, like the Dutch demand for a bigger say for national parliaments, the Conservatives will still demand a referendum. There are plenty of things that Mr Blair likes that they do not. A president of the council. A smaller commission. They want a referendum if more powers go to Brussels. He would argue that giving more power to Brussels can give more power to Britain, or at least Britain’s arguments, whether you are talking about energy policy or an extension of the free market.
Of course, the blunt fact is that the government thinks it would lose a referendum, and it is probably right. Many enthusiasts for the European project think that is Mr Blair’s fault for not making the case strongly enough. He sees himself as a passionate pro-European who does make the case, but blames the media for not reporting it. He thinks if the press changed its tune, public opinion would become pro-European very quickly.
He has no time for Eurosceptics, feeling they are ridiculously old-fashioned. He admits there is now a new breed, not xenophobic, with sophisticated arguments. But he thinks it’s absurd to argue that a smallish country like Britain would have more clout negotiating with China or India on its own. He sees the relationship with Europe and the relationship with the United States as combining to give Britain a far bigger role in the world than without these alliances. And he strongly believes that it just happens you can’t be semi-detached from Europe. Perhaps you can’t from the States either.
He thinks that the role of a full-time president for the council is important, to give coherence to just this sort of negotiation in future. But on the brink of giving up a major political role, he isn’t in the mood for another one. And it’s not on offer for a couple of years even if there is agreement in the next few days. President Bush’s suggestion he should play a role for the quartet in the Middle East is a different matter. He doesn’t rule that out. So he might be back on the world stage sooner than we would have expected.