Will France Let Blair Off the Hook?

May 27, 2005
Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

International Herald Tribune

While France has been transfixed with its referendum on the proposed European constitution, Britain held a general election in which the issue was barely mentioned. The British election was like an elaborately planned dinner party at which one of the A-list guests fails to appear. But that was no accident: Europe was not invited.

By announcing that Britain would hold a referendum on the constitution in 2006, Prime Minister Tony Blair effectively removed Europe from the agenda of the recent election. He thus deprived the Conservative Party, which also supports the war in Iraq, of what might have been its major issue.

Polls show a good deal of skepticism about the proposed constitution in Britain. While some French politicians complain that it reflects too much "Anglo-Saxon liberalism," many in Britain fear that it does not show enough. And Tory politics have changed since the days of Margaret Thatcher. While Thatcher was modest in her enthusiasm for Europe, she presided over a cabinet with a number of strongly pro-European figures. There are few such figures at the top of the Tory party today. In contrast, a majority of the top figures in the Labour government are pro-Europe, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm about the constitution. And Blair himself is genuinely pro-Europe. When he came to office eight years ago, his grand strategy in foreign policy was to enhance Britain's position by making it the interlocutor between Europe and the United States. But his support for the invasion of Iraq damaged Britain's relations with France and Germany, and weakened him at home.

The mood after the election, in which Labour's parliamentary majority was reduced by more than half, has been sour, with some of the smart money betting that Blair might resign in 2007 after 10 years in office.

Such speculation raises a question about Britain's promised 2006 referendum. If France votes no, Blair is off the hook. If France votes yes, it is not clear that Britain's own pro-constitution forces can win the referendum there. Today, the polls are negative and much of the press is opposed. But if every other country has voted to ratify the constitution by the time of the British referendum, it is possible that a major campaign could turn the situation around.

Is Blair the man to lead that campaign? Some argue that he has lost too much trust with the electorate, and that Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer, who is slightly less enthusiastic about Europe , would be a more credible leader on the issue. But Blair would certainly like to make a European victory the capstone of his legacy.

If France were to vote no, he would be spared this dilemma. One can only speculate what Blair would do if he could vote in France on May 29. Perhaps, secretly, this pro-European prime minister might be tempted to vote no.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a professor of international relations at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is the author, most recently, of ''The Power Game: A Washington Novel.'

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