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European Press Review: Blair under Scrutiny

Newspaper editorials around Europe Wednesday analyzed British Premier Tony Blair’s leadership following his narrow victory in the British parliament’s vote on student fees ahead of the release of the Hutton report.

Italy’s Corriere della Sera commented that Tony Blair’s decision to put his prime ministerial career on the line over student fees has paid off. Granted, the Labour Party rebels were numerous, but not quite enough, the paper said. It means the party is as divided as ever, but Blair stays on to fight another day, wrote the paper. Still, the narrow vote is indicative of Blair’s leadership. He no longer has control of his enormous majority which seems to erode on every crucial vote, an erosion similar to that of the government’s image in the wake of the Iraq war, concluded the paper.

The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter wrote that Tony Blair’s style of leadership is based on conviction. Like other leaders he very often resorts to playing political games and is prepared to pay a price for his beliefs, according to the paper. The paper cited Blair’s position on the Iraq war, when he steadfastly refused to budge from his convictions despite overwhelming protests. With the imminent release of the Hutton report on its findings into the suicide of David Kelly, Mr. Blair will once again be in the line of fire, the paper wrote. How he weathers the ensuing storm will depend in no small way on his standing within the Labour Party and that position is becoming increasingly tenuous, it concluded.

The Moscow-based Nezavisimaya Gazeta looked at the wider implications for Mr. Blair’s and Britain’s future foreign policy. The paper said the British government went to war over Iraq not because it was concerned about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but because it had to prove its loyalty to the U.S. That’s why, the paper wrote, the Kelly affair goes beyond the circumstances of his suicide and the parliamentary debates. The inquiry further feeds the flames of a dispute focusing on the delicate issue of how independent Britain’s foreign policy really is.

Two British newspapers commented on the fact that Tony Blair is a marked man. The Daily Telegraph wrote that even if Lord Hutton in his report generally exonerates the British leader for his role in the Kelly affair, the public will not forgive him. He may escape formally being declared a liar, said the paper, but he will be branded as a leader who uses words purely for effect, as someone who believes the fantasies about himself and, most alarmingly, as someone who seems unable to tell the difference between speciousness and reality.

The Independent said that Tony Blair is a deeply wounded prime minister following the narrowest of votes in parliament. The paper wondered how with such a large majority it was necessary for him to resort to last-minute bullying and cajoling to bring Labour rebels on to his side. It begs the question, the paper stated, as to how Blair will fare in other more crucial and radical reforms, for example of the public services, if he has so much trouble getting relatively modest and common-sense issues through parliament.

Meanwhile, commenting on the bird flu outbreak, the Dutch paper De Telegraaf wrote that the WHO’s dramatic warning about potentially millions of deaths is designed to serve as a wake-up call similar to the one used when SARS first emerged. The paper wrote that if the avian flu reaches pandemic proportions we will be partly to blame. After all, the mass industrial-type rearing of poultry has been going on for decades without adequate hygienic controls.

And the French newspaper Liberation noted that a possible pandemic would target every country in the world. If that possibility requires more transparency it also demands of the rich countries to show solidarity with the poorer ones. Even without the latest apocalyptic warnings it should be possible to encourage such help, the paper concluded.