European Affairs

London's Atlantic Bridge Is Falling Down     Print Email

Trouble in Iraq and setbacks in his European strategy have frustrated Tony Blair's hopes of winning political acclaim for his twin roles as America's closest ally and leading European statesman. Instead, he now finds himself in the most difficult international and domestic position of his career, with his dreams of building a bridge across the Atlantic in ruins.

For all his talk of modernization, however, Mr. Blair has been a very traditional British Prime Minister. He has sought to avoid choosing between the United States and the European Union ­ arguing that there is no contradiction between both being a strong friend and ally of the United States and advocating a leading role for Britain in Europe.

 

With his perhaps over-used metaphor of Atlantic bridge-building, Mr. Blair has echoed the sentiments of his predecessors Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, all of whom followed the same approach. In the words of one of Mr. Blair's closest advisers, "sometimes we will be at one end of the bridge and sometimes at the other" ­ at the European end over global warming and the Kyoto Protocol, at the American end over the war in Iraq.

Of course, diplomacy involves fudging choices, or, if you prefer, maximizing options, with the aim of "punching above our weight," in the classic British formulation. In one sense, Britain does not have to choose. It can be closely linked with the United States on major security and defense issues and a full EU partner on economic and trade matters. But there are questions of balance, and of relative priorities, which have been brutally exposed over the past 18 months.

The "bridge/no choices" strategy has never been accepted by French and German leaders, who have resented British claims to a special role as a Transatlantic interlocutor. They have been irritated by British talk of a "special relationship" with Washington ­ an expression of British insecurity rarely used by American leaders except to patronize. At moments of crisis, a British Prime Minister will always call an American President first, before consulting a French President or a German Chancellor. Atlanticism has invariably been the instinctive first reaction of British Prime Ministers (with the exception of Sir Edward Heath in the early 1970s, who put consultation with European leaders first).

The "bridge" strategy has been much harder to sustain since the end of the Cold War. Transatlantic differences became increasingly apparent during the Clinton years ­ and would not disappear even if John Kerry were elected President this November. But difficulties have been magnified since the arrival of the Bush administration, with its unilateralist style and instincts.

Even before 9/11, Mr. Blair was seen as an apologist for President Bush in Europe, rather than as a spokesman for the European view in Washington. In the summer of 2001, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was widely quoted as saying that traffic across Mr. Blair's bridge always seemed to be in one direction. That was not entirely fair, since many of the points Mr. Blair was making ­ on the need to make progress with the Middle East peace process and to work through the United Nations ­ reflected common European concerns.

Yet by seeking private influence in Washington in return for public support, Mr. Blair has not been able to show what he, and Britain, has got out of his close relationship with President Bush. If not exactly a vow of silence, the pursuit of influence has imposed ties of discretion. Mr. Blair's problems have been aggravated by the continuing instability in Iraq, by scarcely disguised differences between British and American military commanders over how to handle insurgents, and, above all, by the appalling pictures of the mistreatment and torture of Iraqi prisoners by American troops ­ and probably by a few British soldiers as well. Moreover,Washington has tended to treat NATO as a "tool kit" rather than an alliance ­ via ad hoc coalitions of the willing.

Mr. Blair has often speculated about how the split over Iraq might have been avoided ­ possibly through a grand deal combining European acceptance of the need to act against Saddam Hussein and a larger U.S. commitment to addressing the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. But that was unlikely because of attitudes on both sides. Perhaps, also, Mr. Blair and his advisers could have devoted more time to seeking a common position with France and Germany, as they did much later over the Iranian nuclear program.

Many in Washington ­ and, at times, Mr. Blair himself ­ have comforted themselves with the split in Europe over Iraq. But the division between Old and New Europe made by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a gross oversimplification, and disregards the fact that a majority of the public in Europe have opposed the war. Moreover, you cannot seriously talk of a Europe that ignores France and Germany.

The defeat of the center-right government in Spain in the March 2004 elections has shown the fragility of such a classification, especially when the first act of the new socialist administration was to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. While the new entrants to the European Union from Central and Eastern Europe are generally pro-American and pro-NATO, for obvious security reasons, this does not mean they want a fight with France or Germany.

Mr. Blair has been left uneasily in the middle of his very battered "bridge." He has appeared to have little clout in Washington, while whatever slim chances there were of an early decision to enter the euro have disappeared. The Iraq war undermined the trust of the British public in Mr. Blair. Euroskeptics in Britain have urged a shift to the American end of the bridge, saying that closer links between the so-called Anglosphere countries are a viable alternative to closer involvement in the European Union. The Transatlantic capitalist model is put forward as a successful alternative to the sluggish and inefficient European model.

So, contrary to Mr. Blair's talk when he was first elected of ending the decades when Britain was the "awkward partner" in the European Union, the UK's position looks as ambiguous as ever ­ only slightly better than during the final bitter years of John Major's government in the mid-1990s. Mr. Blair has admitted the failure of his pro-European strategy in his hasty decision to promise a referendum on an EU constitution ­ a highly risky enterprise given the Euroskeptical mood of British voters.

The Blair team, however, believes that the worst of the Transatlantic tensions may be over. While there has been no real reconciliation, problems in Iraq and falling poll ratings at home have forced President Bush to adopt a more multilateralist approach in practice, returning to the United Nations and talking to European allies to gain international support for the transfer of sovereignty to the new Iraqi Government. Similarly, Germany, and, to a lesser extent, France accept that the United States cannot be left on its own. This is less a change of heart on either side than the result of contingent pressures. But Mr. Blair can, at least, claim that there is some traffic across the damaged "bridge."

Even if all goes well, however, and the European constitution is approved, and sterling eventually enters the euro in several years' time, Britain is always likely to be closer to the United States than to other members of the European Union. At present, circumstances are not so favorable. The tilt to Washington has weakened the UK's standing in Europe, and left Mr. Blair with little to show for his closeness to President Bush. Mr. Blair ­ with the best of intentions ­ has put Britain in the unenviable position of being taken for granted most of the time in Washington and ignored by many in Europe.

Peter Riddell is Chief Political Commentator of The Times of London. His book Hug Them Close ­ Blair, Clinton, Bush and the 'Special Relationship' won the Channel Four Political Book of the Year award in Britain, and will appear in an updated edition this summer on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number II in the Spring of 2004.

 
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