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A wind of change starts to blow across Europe


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"It's windy in here, isn't in, honey?"

A wind of change starts to blow across Europe

By Anthony Browne

Jeers became cheers when Tony Blair spoke to MEPs in Brussels this week

WHEN Tony Blair took to the floor of the European Parliament his officials, muttering about Daniel and the lions’ den, expected him to get the roughest of rides.

Just 24 hours earlier, European MPs had given a lengthy standing ovation to Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, after he denounced Mr Blair for derailing last Friday’s EU summit and accused him of being determined to turn their shared dream of a politically united Europe into a free-trade zone.

His declaration that he was a passionate pro-European was indeed greeted with boos. But then something unexpected happened: the jeers became drowned out by cheers and clapping. “It was symbolic of how the mood has swung,” one British official said.

Mr Blair may not have stormed the Bastille, but wielding his motto “modernise or die”, he had stormed the temple of European federalism.

Disgruntled pro-Chirac French MEPs skulked at the back of the hall. After his speech setting out his plans for the European presidency and emphasising the need to modernise the EU and to divert its €50 billion (£33 billion) agriculture budget to industries of the future, one Spanish journalist ran out declaring: “I am convinced! He is absolutely right!”

British officials could barely contain their delight at the reaction around Europe yesterday. Just a week earlier, Mr Blair had been the whipping-boy of Europe, with President Chirac of France and Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, leading a loud chorus of denunciation, accusing the leader of perfidious Albion of dragging the EU into its deepest crisis by selfishly refusing to give up its budget rebate. “England is very isolated in Europe,” Dominique Bussereau, the French Agriculture Minister, had said.

By yesterday morning, Mr Blair had become the toast of Europe. The British may have become cynical about his Honest Tony oratory and big-tent politics, but on the unsuspecting mainland, they still worked their magic. Just as Mr Blair is most enfeebled at home, across the EU he is being hailed as the natural leader of the continent: the only man who can save Europe from itself.

Italian politicians hailed Tony Blair’s vision of Europe, and declared that a new “Rome-London axis” would provide the driving force of the new EU, replacing the exhausted Franco-German motor. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, said last night: “Europe must reform, as Prime Minister Blair says, and I am in total accord with him.” Piero Fassino, leader of the Democrats of the Left, the main opposition party, said that Mr Blair was charting the way for Europe. Antonio Polito, editor of the left-wing review Reformista, said: “The European Left must understand that it cannot remain attached forever to the Franco-German idea.”

Most worryingly for President Chirac and Herr Schröder is that their own countries’ newspapers fell under Mr Blair’s spell. The left-wing French newspaper Libération declared in its headline: “Blair’s new deal for Europe.” Its veteran Brussels correspondent, Jean Quatremer, said: “For a long time, we have been talking about the French social model, as opposed to the horrible Anglo-Saxon model, but we now see that it is our model that is a horror.” The country’s most influential newspaper, Le Monde, backed Mr Blair’s demand for a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), calling for the partial “renationalisation” of farm aid so that EU countries pay part of the subsidies themselves. The paper declared that the only way to find the funds needed for EU research and technology was to cut spending on agriculture.

Germany’s professionally Europhile journalists have broken the taboo about challenging the Franco-German axis, and no longer risk charges of being unpatriotic if they support Mr Blair. The Berliner Zeitung proclaimed Mr Blair the new strongman of Europe. Die Welt declared: “The British sense of freedom strengthens Europe.”

This week’s revolution in Europe has transformed even the EU capital, Brussels, where analysts and commentators hailed the British conquest. In a deliberate echo of Mr Blair’s former catchphrase, the highly influential European Voice declared: “Where there’s a will there’s a third way for Europe.”

Marco Incerti, of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a think-tank funded by the European Commission, said: “The wind has changed and is now blowing in Mr Blair’s favour. He has broken the taboo in talking about the CAP. There is a dramatic change and everything is now up for grabs. People realise you cannot build the most competitive knowledge-based economy by subsidising agriculture. It is difficult to think of anything of such magnitude that has happened in the last 20 years.”

None of this happened by accident. Downing Street had not expected a revolution, but after the French and Dutch voters rejected the European constitution, it quickly realised the way was open for one. President Chirac tried to deflect attention from his defeat by leading the charge against Britain’s rebate. Downing Street decided that the best defence was attack, and challenged the CAP, which accounts for 40 per cent of the EU budget, and of which a quarter goes to France.

To ensure that the counter-attack succeeded, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office began one of its biggest charm offences on the mainland. Ambassadors undertook a frantic tour of television and radio studios. On the day of the failed summit, Douglas Alexander, the youthful Europe Minister, placed an article in newspapers in 23 out of 25 EU countries. Mr Blair wrote an article for Die Welt with the headline “Money for jobs, not cows”, and gave interviews to French, German, Polish and Italian papers.

Peter Mandelson, the European Trade Commissioner, architect of new Labour and close ally of Mr Blair, set out his vision for a “third way” for Europe in a speech in the City of London.

On Monday, Mr Alexander and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, are heading off for a tour of Eastern European capitals. On Thursday, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, will ram home the case for reform with a White Paper on Europe.

As Britain fought France and Germany for the heart of Europe, other leaders outed themselves as allies. It was no surprise that support came from Göran Persson, the Swedish Prime Minister, who visited Downing Street and declared: “No other European politician can speak to the people in the 25 countries like Blair can.”

But support has also come from more surprising places. Angela Merkel, the centre-right opposition leader in Germany who is favourite to replace Herr Schröder as Chancellor in September’s election, declared her support for the British cause after Mr Blair paid her a visit in Berlin.

Even though M Chirac has tried to paint Mr Blair as the enemy of Eastern Europe, depriving it of subsidies, the former communist countries are coming out on Britain’s side.

Mikulas Dzurinda, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, said: “A reformist group which wants to make changes is emerging. If the price for failing to agree now is an agreement later but with funds distributed more effectively, then I am supporting it. I don’t like the way wheat is subsidised. The European Union needs to be reformed.”

Poland, with its large agriculture sector, has much to lose from CAP reform, but Marek Belka, its Prime Minister, promised Mr Blair that it was open to discussion. Talking of Mr Blair, he said: “He says we need reform, and I want to be the leader of reform, of this movement. He can count on Poland.”

Even the former French President, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the architect of the European constitution, and federalist-in-chief, declared that Britain was right to question European Union spending. “The British position is to say that the structure of European spending is no longer adapted to the present and future needs. That is true,” he said. But there is a difference between winning a battle of ideas and influence, and actually getting reforms.

The European Commission, now headed by Mr Blair’s ally, José Manuel Barroso, is thought to be largely sympathetic to the British argument. But France, like every other country, retains the veto on any change in farm subsidies. Even if M Chirac is no longer President after the 2007 elections, his successor will face the same pressure from French farmers not to cave in. Even if Frau Merkel wins the German election, she is also likely to be hostage to the Bavarian farming lobby.

One British diplomat admitted: “Things move slowly in Europe. But we can perhaps start the process of reform.”

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