Commentary: Can Blair Repair the U.S.-Europe Rift?

Does Tony Blair care about Europe anymore? The British Prime Minister has gambled so much on Britain's alliance with the U.S. that it seems Europe is no longer on his agenda. After all, France and Germany have made it clear they are furious with Blair's pro-war stance -- and the Franco-German axis, at the end of the day, still asserts the most power in the Old World. Better for Blair to stick with George W. Bush. Indeed, on Mar. 26, just a week after the war started, Blair flew to Camp David to consult with the American President on the next phase in the war and to win U.S. support for two new U.N. resolutions on humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of Iraq.

But don't let Blair's astonishingly pro-American stance fool you. The PM cares desperately about Europe -- so much so, in fact, that he is about to take on the next big diplomatic gamble of his career. First, he answered America's call to arms. Now, he wants to repair the Atlantic Alliance. And the way to do that is to make the special relationship even more special.

How so? Blair wants to increase his influence in the European Union at a time when the organization is expanding to the East. And he has not abandoned his goal of nudging Britain into monetary union. He wants to pull Europe away from the Franco-German model of big, welfare-state economics and heavy regulation. And Blair wants to align with a number of current and future members of the EU -- Spain, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Portugal, and the Netherlands, to name just a few -- who resent the French, in particular, and who want to mold Europe to their own purposes.

Trouble is, you don't achieve those goals by remaining at permanent loggerheads with the great powers of the Continent. "Blair has lost standing in Europe because of his pro-American stance," says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform in London. "So it's important that he show that Britain's relationship with the U.S. is paying dividends."

If Blair can repair the rift between Europe and the U.S., he will be well on his way to achieving new power broker status. His goal is to get the U.S. to agree to greater involvement of the international community and the U.N. in rebuilding Iraq as well as to secure a firm U.S. commitment to a road map for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Progress on either front would go a long way toward helping Britain regain its credibility in Europe -- and increasing Blair's leverage.

The Prime Minister probably won't get all the assurances he wants on this trip. Persuading the more hawkish members of the Bush Administration of the need for greater international involvement won't be easy. The U.S. already has plans for a temporary civilian peacekeeping force under control of the U.S. military. But Blair knows that would only increase European resentment at what is viewed as America's go-it-alone foreign policy. "If Blair fails to get the U.S. to accept greater U.N. involvement, his political credibility at home and abroad will wane sharply," says Tom Bentley, director of Demos, an independent think tank in London. "And relations between Europe and the U.S. would get worse before they get better."

Still, this trip to Camp David won't be Blair's last. The PM will keep engaging Bush, pushing the American President to reconnect with Europe and build some sort of multilateral approach to postwar problems. At a Downing Street briefing on Mar. 25, Blair said that the alternative to partnership between Europe and the U.S. is an "extremely dangerous polarization between the powers of the two continents." And "if Europe and America split apart from each other, [the loser is] not going to be Britain."

Can Blair pull off this détente? If his success in persuading the voters at home is any indication, he just may do so. Once British soldiers went into battle, public opinion rallied behind them. A Mar. 26 survey conducted by London-based online research and polling outfit YouGov Ltd. shows support for the war now stands at 56%, a 6-point gain in just one week. Blair's personal-approval ratings have also soared to 56%, up from 47% a week earlier. Another successful throw of the dice could secure his position in Europe. But George Bush has to back him up.

By Kerry Capell

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