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Blair's chances are rising to mould Europe his way


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Blair's chances are rising to mold Europe his way

By Alan Cowell The New York Times

MONDAY, JUNE 20, 2005

LONDON On the broad and fraying canvas of European integration, the vicious brawl between France and Britain that wrecked a summit meeting late Friday seemed, as one British official put it, to be "the worst crisis."

But, through the narrower focus of Prime Minister Tony Blair's political fortunes, Europe's disarray may offer different omens, diverting attention from challenges closer to home, enabling him to rewrite the timetable of his third term in office. With a bold - and as yet uncertain - maneuver to mold Europe's agenda, he might even be hoping to resuscitate the global role he once pursued as a bridge between the United States and Europe.

Like his predecessor and adversary Margaret Thatcher, Blair returned from the Brussels summit meeting in the bloodied mantle of a victorious warrior against those in Continental Europe - France and Germany - whose demands have long grated on his nation's Euroskeptic soul.

An opinion poll Sunday in the tabloid News of the World showed almost three-quarters of respondents in favor of Blair's readiness to face down his adversaries in what was reported here as macho arm-wrestling with President Jacques Chirac of France over the European budget.

He could hardly have chosen a more suitable adversary than Chirac, mocked in British tabloids with almost the same venom as British chauvinists reserve for the Germans.

Columnists noted that the Brussels summit meeting broke up on the 190th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, when the defeat of France's Napoleon Bonaparte by British and Prussian armies redrew the map of Europe.

"In saving Europe from itself, he thinks he has found a new mission," said the columnist Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer Sunday newspaper.

Suddenly, no one was talking about Blair's unpopular support for the war in Iraq - the issue that haunted his re-election campaign. The vote on May 5 returned Blair to office for a historic third term, but with a reduced parliamentary majority that inspired much debate about when he might hand over power to his rival, the chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. But, faced with a common enemy across the channel, Brown and Blair seemed united in opposing French demands for an end to Britain's multibillion-dollar rebate from the European Union.

Like the Duke of Wellington before him - and after more recent military campaigns in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq - Blair had found a new battleground. And, with his European adversaries, Chirac in France and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany, weakened politically, the British leader clearly feels it is a battle worth the fight to mold Europe's future, if only to provide a political legacy.

"It's certainly a crisis - it's the worst crisis that I've seen during my four years as foreign secretary, indeed my more than eight years as a member of this government," Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, said Sunday.

"But crises can either turn into disasters if you do nothing about them or they can turn into cathartic opportunities and I believe that we both have a duty and an opportunity here to turn it into a catharsis from which greater good comes," he said in a radio interview."

Some of Blair's calculations are based on felicitous timing.

On July 1, Britain will assumed the rotating presidency of the 25-nation European Union, offering Blair the chance to combine two roles as a leading combatant in the Continent's division, and as umpire in its struggle for healing.

Then, on July 6, as chairman of the Group of 8 summit in Scotland, he will strut the world's stage as host to the leaders of the richest and most powerful nations, including the United States, offering the opportunity for great statesmanship and the peril of unseemly disputes over climate change and poverty relief with friend and foe alike.

In some ways, the battle for Europe is one that has finally crystallized the distinctions that have kept Britain aloof from the French-German social vision of the Continent - and thus from the closer integration of the euro single currency - for years.

It is, said Straw, "essentially a division between whether you want a European Union that is able to cope with the future or whether you want a European Union that is trapped in the past."

In this analysis, Britain, with its hire-and-fire labor laws, its low unemployment, its struggling public services and its economic growth, is depicted as the future. Continental Europe, with its jobless millions cosseted by unaffordable benefits, is history.

Of course, it may not turn out to be so simple. European plans for a new constitution have been wrecked by referendums in France and the Netherlands rejecting the charter.

In their wake, the Continent that Blair seeks to lead may well be adrift with domestic politics dominating agendas from Paris to Berlin.

When he took office in 1997, Blair set out a grand vision of putting Britain at the heart of Europe and overcoming a profound Euroskepticism among his own people. Now, though, he seems to be the arch-proponent of that same hostility to the rest of the Continent.

"At last he has 'come out,' as Thatcher in a suit," the columnist Simon Jenkins wrote in the Sunday Times.

Underpinning Blair's actions in coming months is the sense here that he is seeking a triumph that will define him for posterity in a way that eluded him in Iraq or at home.

"Two hundred years ago William Pitt gloomily rolled away the map of Europe for as long as Napoleon was on the loose," Jenkins wrote. "At Waterloo, 10 years later, it was unrolled. Today it is unrolled again and, briefly, laid at Tony Blair's feet. His legacy is what he does next."

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