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Europe

Can Britain Save Europe?

Britain takes over the European Union's presidency next month. But after dropping plans Monday for a referendum on the EU constitution, London may have difficulty healing growing rifts on the continent.

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Solutions to the EU's woes won't be easy for Tony Blair to find

When Prime Minister Tony Blair becomes chairman of the six-month rotating European Union presidency on July 1, he risks being painted as the man who killed off hopes of resurrecting the constitution, analysts said.

Yet trouble could come even earlier, when Blair travels to Brussels for a June 16-17 summit of EU states, including France and Germany. Berlin urged the 25-nation bloc to continue the process of ratifying the constitution, but Britain ignored the pleas.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Monday his government would not proceed with a referendum until the dust had settled from the rejection of the constitution by French and Dutch voters last week.

Parts of the European Union constitution could be introduced without a referendum in Britain, Straw said Tuesday. In an attempt to bolster efforts by Blair to calm the political storm sweeping Europe over the EU constitution, Straw said the charter was not dead despite the decision taken by Britain.

Leadership vacuum

But the current state of affairs leaves the EU with a leadership vacuum, said Richard Whitman, who heads the European program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

Gipfel in Berlin Jacques Chirac Tony Blair und Gerhard Schröder

Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair

He added that despite the weakness of Europe's traditional steering axis of Germany and France, Blair is not in a position to drive the EU along a road more suited to Britain.

"France and Germany have already lost some their leadership potential because of their behavior over recent years, not least wrecking the stability and growth pact. They've lost a lot of good will from smaller member states," he told the AFP news service.

But Britain hardly occupies a strong position itself.

"Britain is not in the core of the European integration project, not in the euro zone and it doesn't have the same relationship to the stability and growth pact," he said.

Informelles Treffen, Schröder Chirac in Berlin

Schröder and Chirac stumped hard for the constitution

The French believed that the constitution, in opposition to their preferred big-government model, opened the door to right-wing "Anglo-Saxon" economic liberalism -- namely the deregulated markets in public services operating in Britain and the United States.

Blair unlikely to push

Observers believe Blair will not seize the chance to guide the EU in that direction as he assumes the presidency.

"Absolutely not, because much of the opposition in the Netherlands and France came from people on the left," said Patrick Dunleavy, a politics professor at the London School of Economics. "I don't see how pushing an agenda that contributed powerfully to two referendum defeats would be a positive thing to do. That's not to say that it won't be tried," he added.

Julie Smith, deputy director of the Center of International Studies at the University of Cambridge, also doubted Britain could repair the divisions tearing Europe apart.

"Now is a time to say what are the things that really bind us, what are the things on which we all agree, and how to move forward," she told AFP. "Unfortunately the (British) agenda is not one of those things that binds us. The more (Blair) tries to push that the less he is going to influence the union effectively."

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