As Britain takes over the presidency of the EU, its prospects in Europe look rosier than for 25 years. But, argues Timothy Garton Ash, the prospects for Europe itself are less encouraging. While one part of the continent wrestles with a single currency the other has unfinished business from the last centuryby Timothy Garton-Ash / January 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
You have to pinch yourself. Instead of Britain as eternal curmudgeon of the European Union, here is Britain acknowledged-even in France-as a constructive partner in leadership. Instead of reading about the British disease and the German model, we read about the British model and the German disease. And we read this not in Britain but in Germany. Britain leads the debate on subjects like “employability” and welfare reform. British diplomats in Bonn and Paris report an extraordinary change of atmosphere. “People return your calls,” says one, indicating how low we had sunk before. Continental media coverage of Britain has changed too. In place of stories about sleaze and royal scandal we have devolution, independence for the Bank of England, adopting the European Convention on Human Rights, Irish peace initiatives-all well received. Young, dynamic Tony is contrasted with tired old Helmut and Jacques.
So as Britain takes on the six-month EU presidency, one might ask: have we ever had it so good? Has there been any time in the past 25 years when Britain’s prospects in Europe looked so rosy?
In part, the transformation over the past six months has been a gift from the government’s predecessors; in two quite different ways. First, the new British model is built, economically, on the foundations that Margaret Thatcher laid. Tony Blair’s modernising counterparts on the continental left, such as Germany’s Gerhard Schr?der, can only dream of inheriting such foundations. (That Thatcherism had a high social cost and shrank the manufacturing sector qualifies, but does not disqualify, this statement.) Second, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and the Conservative party ultimately produced so much resentment in Europe that any half-way reasonable successor was sure to be welcomed with relief.
None the less, the opportunity has been seized with skill. By all accounts, Tony Blair has managed to establish with Helmut Kohl the kind of personal relationship by which the German chancellor famously sets much store. They have not yet gone to the sauna together (as Kohl did with Boris Yeltsin). So far, the prime minister has not even had the pleasure of sampling Kohl’s favourite delicacy-pig’s stomach. But they talk quite often on the telephone and, when they meet, have long quasi-philosophical chats. The distance in political philosophy between a British, Christian, centrist social democrat and a German, centrist, Christian-social democrat is not great. And Kohl’s real desire to see Britain back in the inner…