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Tony Blair on the New Europe

What is the British perspective on the future of the EU?

March 1, 2006

What is the British perspective on the future of the EU?

Europe is no longer in search of a cause, but a reason. We don’t need to look far to find the reason. The world is more interdependent than ever.

Policy on trade or climate change or war cannot be conducted alone. Statesmanship is shared or, all too often, futile. Nations are obliged to cooperate. If the EU didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.

But today’s generation wants to know that the challenges Europe faces are being met by a cooperation that is practical and effective.

In other words, the very cultural/political reservation that was particularly British is now widely shared by millions of our fellow Europeans. People are not impatient with idealism; but impatient with it being expressed in ways that do not yield practical consequence.

Give them a Europe-wide program to beat organized crime coming in from Europe’s borders and they will support it. Tell them Europe has decided to harmonize rules over vitamin tablets and they get irritated.

A single market needs certain rules standardized and harmonized in order to work. But people want that shown, case by case — not assumed as a matter of doctrine.

People will not buy more Europe as an end in itself. They will ask: Why — and what for? But answer those questions well and they will buy it as a means to an end they understand.

I see a Europe around me that has a long-term vision in need of a short-term strategy. The vision is the one I share with Europe’s founders: An ever closer union of nation states, cooperating, as of sovereign right, where it is in their interest to do so.

I don’t support ever closer union for the sake of it. But precisely because, in the world in which we live, it will be the only way of advancing our national interest effectively.

The nature of globalization, the emergence of China and India, the fact that no European country will in time be large or powerful enough to be a major power on its own: all of this means, to me, that the nations which do well will be the ones that build the strongest alliances.

We in Europe have the two best: each other and the USA. So keep them strong. No, the issue at present is not the long-term vision, but the short-term strategy to re-align today’s reality with it.

Let me explain. I accept we will need to return to the issues around the European Constitution. A European Union of 25 cannot function properly with today’s rules of governance. Having spent six months as EU President, I am a good witness to that.

But, right now, I say: discuss the way forward by all means, but don’t let us get drawn back into making this debate the focus of our activities. If we do so, we will damage the very vision the constitution was supposed to embody.

Now is the time of the practical people. There is an agenda that cries out to be addressed.

1. Economic reform: We all say we want it. We all know it is important. Our people need it. Let’s do it. The Services Directive. The Commission De-regulation Initiative. The 2008 Budget Review. University Reform. R&D. Science and Technology.

2. Security: All of us are under threat from terrorism. It can only be tackled together. Illegal immigration has to be confronted. Organized crime is on our streets.

Let us take the measures to fight it, including on the policing of our borders, the use of biometric visas and much greater co-operation across Europe on targeting, disrupting and convicting the criminal gangs who menace us.

3. Energy: Energy is becoming an instrument of leverage, and in some cases, intimidation the world over. Yet as President Chirac said recently, we in Europe have no clear common policy to define our own needs and interests. Let us get one. Get a functioning internal market in place. Complete a common EU infrastructure and make energy policy a priority in external relations.

4. Defense and Foreign Policy: From global poverty and development to the Middle East Peace Process and peacekeeping and common defense policy.

Europe has a strong common imperative to make our presence, values and objectives felt. Let us re-invigorate it. Address this agenda, work on the practical — but radical — steps to achieve it and the context in which to discuss Europe’s rules would be framed.

Then do what needs to be done to help to deliver the agreed, political program. But don’t start with the rules. Start with the reasons they are needed.

The irony is that after the shock of enlargement, the crisis of the referendums, the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey and the agreement of the budget, with a firm process of reform midway through the next financial term — after all these alarms and excursions — there’s never been a better time to be optimistic in Europe or enthusiastic about Britain’s part in it.

The British anxiety is a shared one with the people of Europe, the reform agenda an agreed one with the mainstream of European governments.

Europe has emerged from its darkened room. It has a new generation of leaders. A new consensus is forming. Yes, there is still a debate to be had, but the argument in favor of an open Europe is winning.

For Britain, this is the last time imaginable to walk away. It is actually the time for a commonsense alliance — of the pro-Europeans who were worried about the direction of European integration and the genuine Euro-skeptics who were worried about British disengagement from Europe.

Each of us had similar concerns and often a similar agenda, but drew different conclusions about Europe’s capacity to change. That capacity is now there. Let us capitalize on it.

For Britain, such a possibility in Europe opens up its own possibility for us: To forge a new alliance between those of us who have held throughout to Europe’s ideals.

Even when, from time to time, the practice seemed so far removed from them — and those whose despair at whether Europe could change, gave way to skepticism about the whole project.

It is a new Europe. It has the potential for a new direction. We are part of it, in at the ground floor. It’s where we should have always been. Now we’re there, we should stay there.

There is no other way for Britain. Britain won’t leave Europe. No government would propose it. And despite what we are often told, the majority of the British people, in the end, would not vote for withdrawal.

So we are in it. And it is changing. And in a way we have sought and fought for. The manner in which we originally joined the European project has dogged us for too long. From now on, let the manner of our staying in define us.

Adapted from Tony Blair’s Speech to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day in Oxford on January 27, 2006. To read the full text, click here.