Ahead of taking over the EU presidency, Tony Blair addressed the European Parliament Thursday, amid criticism -- including from Germany -- that his EU policy is motivated by a desire for a free trade area.
Tony Blair isn't the most popular man in Europe right now
"The issue is not between a free market Europe and a social Europe, between those who want to retreat to a common market and those who believe in Europe as a political project," he said.
Stressing that that those calling for the EU to change should not be accused of betraying European ideals, British Prime Minister Blair called on Europe to push through economic and budgetary reform or lag behind in the global economy.
"We need reform urgently in Europe, if Europe is to grow," he said.
After the summit of EU leaders in Brussels last week foundered on Blair's refusal to give up Britain's treasured budget rebate except as part of a wider inquisition into spending, few expected his words to fall on sympathetic ears.
In recent days, Blair has been castigated by other leaders -- notably French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso -- for being only interested in Europe's trading dimensions, and willing to sacrifice the good of the EU for petty national interests.
Little more than a free trade zone
His vision for the EU is certainly not the same as Chirac's or Gerhard Schröder's. Schröder told the mass circulation Bild Thursday that he was firmly against the bloc becoming little more than a free trade zone.
"That's not what I want," he said. "(The bloc) is a successful social model based on common values, rights and obligations. Anyone who wants to undermine this model -- be it out of national interests or populism -- is offending against the rights of future generations."
Blair retaliated in his speech by emphasizing that "this is not a time to accuse those who want Europe to change of betraying Europe. It is a time to recognize that only by change will Europe recover its strength, its relevance, its idealism and therefore its support among the people."
In a guest commentary in Bild, Blair rejected accusations that his sole priority was making the EU a large market.
"Britain supports a social Europe," he said. "But it must be a social Europe that suits the world today." In an interview with the daily Tagesspiegel, he described himself as a "passionate European" and pointed out that the UK had signed up to the EU's social charter during his premiership.
Blair takes the blame
It is a somewhat bitter irony probably not lost on Blair that while in Britain he is often reviled as an arch-europhile, elsewhere in the EU he is being blamed for plunging the bloc into crisis.
At home, when the subject of Europe comes up, the prime minister is usually portrayed as a vanguard federalist seeking to sell out Britain's national interests to Brussels. Even on a more balanced view, Blair is markedly pro-European by the standards of his country.
He came to power in 1997 publicly determined to integrate London closer with the European mainstream, notably in pushing for Britain to join the euro at some point.
Pro-Europe after all?
This made him considerably more pro-Europe than many in his left-leaning Labour Party, not to mention the main opposition Conservatives, who generally take a far more hostile stance.
Repeated opinion polls have also showed a significant majority of Britons wanting to keep the pound, meaning even Blair would have been unlikely to have won the issue had he put it to a referendum. As it turned out this was never necessary. In June 2003, Blair's finance minister, Gordon Brown, announced that five self-imposed economic tests on the benefits of joining the eurozone had not been passed, putting off any decision.
Blair was also notably more enthusiastic about the now-scuppered EU constitution, originally insisting it should be approved by Britain without a referendum, only backing down after it become clear public opinion was against him.
Reshaping in his own image
Yet Blair's positive feelings for the EU stem as much from a desire to re-shape the bloc to his own image as fondness for the existing status quo.
On a number of occasions -- notably the Iraq war -- Blair has pointedly backed the "new Europe" of economically vibrant Eastern European states over the traditional powerhouses of France and Germany.
Fears among fellow EU members that Blair wanted to drastically scale back the EU were a complete misreading of his beliefs, according to Denis MacShane, until last month Blair's minister for Europe.
"He supports European foreign policy," he told reporters earlier this week. "He supports social dimensions, he supports (common) defense. The idea that Britain under Tony Blair is going to go to a reversion of a Europe of nation states without a strong European Union is simply not the case."
"You have two sides in Blair," said Alasdair Murray from London-based think tank, the Centre for European Reform. "On one side he is very pragmatic... another side of him is much more messianic -- he has a vision, he uses language that has almost a sort of religious imagery in it."