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Last Updated: Friday, 11 May 2007, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
Blair leaves lasting impact on EU
By Mark Mardell
BBC News Europe editor

When a fresh faced Tony Blair cycled around Amsterdam with other EU leaders at the Amsterdam summit shortly after coming to power it seemed to enthusiasts for the union that the brakes were off.

Tony Blair cycling in Amsterdam in 1997
Tony Blair pedalling was seen as an optimistic move

The European Union loves metaphors of transport and momentum and it seemed Mr Blair would pedal furiously to catch up with the rest of the pack and then lead them.

He was replacing a leader who had once said that the eternal dilemma of a British prime minister was to either be isolated in Brussels or called a traitor at home.

Mr Blair told French journalists a few weeks ago that he'd avoided both pitfalls. In fact, he's often achieved the distinction of being seen as both at the same time.

Consider the record. During his time in office, relations with other EU countries hit an all-time low.

By the time that happened he'd already buckled to pressure and made it clear Britain wouldn't be joining the EU's most ambitious and most important project.

Despite the dismay of some Euro enthusiasts, Eurosceptics still feel he's continually given in to Brussels. Still, he has every right to claim that these days the European Union dances to his tune.

But it instructive to rewind the film. Do you remember that before Labour came to power it was Gordon Brown who was seen as the impetuous European enthusiast, while Tony Blair was putting a realistic and restraining hand on the shadow chancellor's collar.

During the 1997 election the Sun ran an article under Mr Blair's by-line with the headline "Why I love the pound" when Labour's policy was to join the Euro.

Euro currency
Blair once wrote about 'why I love the pound' when Labour policy was to join the euro

Hungry for power, Europe for Labour was merely another a badge of modernity, and a symbol of Labour's unity compared to the tawdry Tory in-fighting. In power it wasn't quite so simple.

Everyone expected the new Labour government to hold a referendum on joining the Euro, and the only question was how quickly it would happen.

Soon after the chancellor killed off the idea I remember this uncomfortable double act inside a grand room in Number 10 telling European enthusiasts that there would be a consolation prize.

They would go round the country campaigning - not for the Euro, but for the idea of the European Union.

Of course it never happened. A few months later, under repeated questioning the Treasury claimed that a junior minister had held such a meeting in Leeds. That was the sole evidence that there was any attempt to re-sell Europe to the British people.

Years later it looked like Mr Blair would have no choice but to belatedly keep his promise.

He had very reluctantly agreed to hold a referendum on the European constitution. He knew he was walking into the unknown, and perhaps into a career-killing, unwinnable battle to persuade the British people of the merits of the EU.

Iraq's impact

When the French and Dutch voted "no" in their own referendums he was off the hook and the relief in Downing Street was palpable.

But by then, the big rupture had already happened.

Mr Blair's enthusiasm for the war with Iraq completely altered the way he was seen in Europe.

Joined only by the right-wing Spanish and Portuguese leaders, most saw him as an American lackey.

He became to many the enemy within, arguing President Bush's case to an organisation that, for many, exists specifically to act as a counterweight to the world's only super power.

In fact it highlighted his very different world view: what many European leaders believe to be one of their main purposes, he thinks is a danger.

But none of this made Eurosceptics happy. They believe that Tony Blair has happily gone along with the ratchet effect, accepting more policies made in Brussels, while paying more into a budget without meaningful reform.

Tony Blair at the EU in 2007
Blair has seen many of his policies introduced to the EU

But Blair himself seems almost self-satisfied with his European policy. It's not just hubris.

Britain's long-standing policy of extending EU membership to new countries has not been stopped, as some members wished.

The reuniting of East and West has meant Britain has new allies. They like the UK aren't keen on an ever deeper union, Like Britain they do want more economic liberalism and a better relationship with the US.

It's not spin or falling for the government's line to say that some of the EU's most important policies started with Blair.

He dropped Britain's long-standing opposition to an EU energy policy so that fighting climate change could be put at the centre of the EU agenda.

It is the most important initiative for some years.

The European Commission's enthusiasm for more competition, more economic liberalism and eye-catching initiatives to help consumers are straight from the Blair hymn book.

Mr Blair's political passing may be mourned more in Brussels than in some other European capitals.

But there's an irony here. From Paris to Berlin hearts are pumping, if not with love, at least to the Blair beat, with leaders who want to sort out Europe's economy.

And if other EU prime ministers and presidents sometimes thought Blair lukewarm about their grand project, they may realise, with Brown and Cameron waiting in the wings, the water separating us from them is about to get a little colder.






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