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Britain's Could-Be Role in Europe



LONDON-- The British election made one thing very clear and the other decidedly unclear. The former can be summed up simply, the second takes more space. If defunct prime minister John Major had any real commitment to Europe he totally betrayed it by the timing of his resignation as leader of the Conservative party. Although privately touting as his successor Chris Patten, the governor of Hong Kong and most pro-Europe of senior Conservatives, by resigning immediately he has made it impossible for Patten to throw his hat in the ring. Patten can't make a move in British electoral politics until the hand-over of Hong Kong to China at midnight on June 30th.

With Patten sidelined Prime Minister Tony Blair has to decide, if necess a leader who will drive them off to Euroscepticism, with plenty of back-seat advice from the still redoubtable Margaret Thatcher.

Nevertheless, as the election revealed--for all the jingoism poured down their ears by Conservative politicians and the right wing, mainly foreign-owned, press--the British are not as reflexively anti-European as has been widely supposed.

Moreover, given his thumping majority--and on this question he has the newly revitalized third party force, the Liberal Democrats to count on--it truly is down to Blair to decide whether it is good for Britain to take the giant steps towards a federally-minded Europe that the times demand. Yet his early moves, although less hostile towards Europe than his predecessor, still seem to err too much on the side of caution. Blair seems to have inhaled too deeply the obfuscatory smoke the Labour party thought it had to blow in the eyes of the electorate in order to ensure victory.

If Blair is not both to marginalise Britain and to miss the historic opportunity to banish strife and war from Europe for all time he needs to grasp three nettles rather quickly, one economic, one military and one historical.

The economic one, monetary union, is arguably the easiest to reach for--for if Britain doesn't take the plunge and join up the consequences for Britain will, in all likelihood, be an immediate and massive drain of foreign investment from Britain to the continent. As Michael Camdessus, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has acutely observed, the Europe of a single currency is going to be a very attractive proposition: "With one very strong currency to anchor macro-economic policy Europe would enjoy an increasingly dynamic internal market, more trade with the rest of the world, higher savings and investment and lower interest rates." Of course there are (mainly British) economists who argue that the tight fiscal policies likely to be demanded by membership will put a clamp on new found British growth. But as the Irish and Danish experience makes clear fiscal tightening can actually stimulate growth, provided it includes a commitment to substantial deficit reduction. The good news is that the new government's surprise decision to give the Bank of England independence on interest rate policy is perhaps an omen of a European single currency approach to come.

Next is the military nettle patch, sewn more by President Bill Clinton and his NATO expansion policy than by John Major, though he was a more than willing collaborator. The best course for a Europe that wants to knit Russia more tightly into western civilization where the soul of its literature, music, philosophy, if perhaps not always its politics, has always been, is not to separate it off by drawing the line of new NATO membership right up to its borders. It is rather either to leave well alone, NATO as it is (which the U.S. Senate could well insist on) or to incorporate Russia into an expanded NATO, where besides pulling it into Europe it would be a useful bulwark against growing Chinese military strength. At the same time there should be a move to intermesh the West European (Defense) Union into the European Union. Thus when the former east European members of the Warsaw Pact are ready to join the European union they automatically become part of European military structures.

This is both a more logical and less belligerent way of filling the vacuum in western Europe caused by the ending of the Cold War than by a provocative NATO expansion.

The historical nettle is the most telling. Blair either has an historical sense or he doesn't. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany has it in spades. As he observes, if Germany, which will always be Europe's single most powerful country, is not to be a dangerous loose barge on the European river it needs to be firmly tied ever deeper into Europe. But it can only be properly tied if there are enough other big boats for it to be anchored to. France is one for sure, but Britain has to be the other. This is a sine qua non for peace in 21st. century Europe. If Blair comprehends this then everything else, economic, military and political should fall into place in his mind. The question is without Chris Patten to educate and prod him from the opposition does he on his own have the wisdom and vision to go forward?


May 7, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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