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Sunday, June 27, 2004

Flagging heart for the EU

Special to The Japan Times

LONDON -- More than 40,000 Britons have made a special trip to Portugal for a two-week European festival while, back at home, tens of millions of others are following the festival, alternatively rejoicing and groaning, on television screens in pubs and bars, city centers and homes. Euro 2004 is the most popular event since the World Cup in Japan and South Korea two years ago -- far bigger than the Olympic Games. It has brought out national flags flying from almost every car and many homes in the country.

Yet, in the British Parliament nearly two weeks ago, leading politicians of all parties denounced Europe with a venom that might lead one to think it was a partner in U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil." They were following the line of most of the popular press, which has attacked European leaders' approval of a constitution for an expanded European Union as a wicked conspiracy to steal all of Britain's most cherished freedoms. Although different events, Euro 2004 and the agreement on the constitution illustrate the dangerous schizophrenia in Britain toward Europe.

On one hand, the Brits were proud to celebrate the progress of their soccer team (until the loss in the quarterfinals to Portugal on Thursday) and to go on holiday in droves to Europe to enjoy the better beaches, the finer wines and cuisine, and the pleasures of common European civilization.

On the other hand, they have just voted in European parliamentary elections for politicians who range from Euroskeptic to openly hostile toward the EU. As an Englishman on a short visit back home, I find the logic of the political debate difficult to follow, and the attitudes of the politicians distressingly dishonest.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is in something of a bind. He is committed to Europe, but in a skeptical way. His alliance with Bush on Iraq (which has led to his portrayal by British cartoonists as Bush's pet poodle at best), his reluctance to commit Britain to the euro currency, and his very obvious unease with the alliance of French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have reduced any sympathy that mainstream Europe might have had for his plight.

British attitudes toward Europe have certainly given cause for the French to suspect that Gen. Charles de Gaulle was right when he said Britain tends to be an offshore state of the United States.

The prime minister is further handicapped by a strong faction within his own party that wants to maintain Britain's distance from Europe. The more thoughtful people of the ruling Labour Party claim that the EU is trying to do too much and is doing it badly, leading to waste and inefficiency. They argue that a neoliberal economic and competition policy championed by an elitist commission is strangling growth and locking in mass unemployment across the continent.

Certainly, sluggish economic growth in the eurozone of 1 to 2 percent a year and unemployment of 9 percent -- against 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, in Britain -- is not doing much to create a giant Europe that can compete with the U.S. Wasteful common agricultural and fisheries policies are doing little to endear the EU to British pragmatists.

In addition, stalemate and political infighting over who will succeed Romano Prodi as head of the European Commission have further damaged the European cause. France and Germany particularly seem more concerned with getting jobs for their boys rather than choosing the best man for the job.

Poor Chris Patten, who would probably have been the best man for the job, of course, never had a chance because Britain could not be trusted. But Blair is also feeding his own boys with jobs. The rumor is that the British representative on in the new commission in the autumn will be the twice-sacked minister and buddy of Blair, Peter Mandelson. It is a depressing prospect that all of the leaders are playing the same game.

The main Conservative opposition party, itself split wide over Europe, is playing a dangerous game of pandering to the electorate. Most of the Conservative heavyweights, like Patten, former deputy leader Michael Heseltine and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke, are pro-Europe, but they are all outside the main tent. Meanwhile, current leader Michael Howard, noting the success of the U.K. Independence Party in the European parliamentary elections, has become more strident in goading Blair with a British and anti-European flag.

Much of the popular press has worked itself up into an anti--European lather. The Sun, for example, the most popular paper owned by a naturalized U.S. citizen, Rupert Murdoch of Australia, screamed last week: "If Tony Blair puts his pen to paper [to accept the European constitution], he'll be signing away a thousand years of British sovereignty. Our independence to run our own lives, make our own laws, be masters of our destinies, will all be lost."

This is arrant nonsense. The constitution, however badly written, does little but clarify existing laws. Britain has already lost sovereignty just by being a middle-ranking power whose navy no longer rules the waves. The great Conservative hero and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill said as far back as 1950 that "national sovereignty is not inviolable and may be diminished for the sake of all the men in all the lands."

The fact of life is that in economics and trade, Britain is as deeply involved in Europe as English soccer is. Without Europe there would be nowhere else to go. The problem of the U.K. Independence Party is that it lives in the folly-land of believing that it can renegotiate Britain's way out of Europe while keeping the privileges and trade terms of being in Europe. The party is setting the tone of the political debate.

The tragedy for someone visiting from Asia is that there are too few honest politicians prepared to stand up and fight for Britain's place in Europe, exposing the follies of the Chirac-Schroeder alliance or asking the pertinent questions about the euro and economic growth.

It reminds me of what Edmund Burke said a couple of centuries ago: All that was required for evil to flourish was for good men to stand back and do nothing. One can only -- faintly -- hope that English soccer successes in Europe will lead to a change of heart.

Kevin Rafferty, a former managing editor for the World Bank, flew back to Britain recently for a visit.

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