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Britain, Blair, Brown and Europe

Tony Blair managed to lead his New Labour back to the helm of Britain, but analysts predict he won't serve a full third term. How would his departure affect British-EU relations?


Tony Blair in the backseat?

Even before the campaign for Britain's general elections got underway, Prime Minister Tony Blair made it clear that, come what may, he would not be standing again. And although he has repeated his intention to serve the full four or five years of his third successive tenure, widespread beliefs argue that he will not.

Überraschungsbesuch des britischen Premierministers Tony Blair im bei den Truppen im Irak

British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Basra, Iraq

Much criticized for his handling of the Iraq war, the prime minister has come under increasing pressure from party rebels to call it a day. But Blair's response thus far has been an appeal to his party to look at the bigger picture.

"Our fourth victory will be under a different leadership, but we have to remain united," the prime minister told his MPs at their first meeting after the May 5 elections.

But his words were not enough to quash dissent among party rebels who are calling for him to stand down at the annual Labour Party conference in the autumn. Observers, however, suggest he is unlikely to take his final bow before the referendum on the EU constitution, which is planned for next year.

A dead cert

Although speculation on the timing of Blair's resignation varies, the subject of who the successor will be has opinion unified: Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. He has more than proved himself as the financial brains behind Blair's Labour Party, is officially the most popular finance minister in Britain's postwar history and, according to a recent poll, is better liked and trusted than his current boss.

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown is more passionate about economics than Europe

But economic wizardry is not the same as running a whole country. Alasdair Murray, deputy director of the Center for European Reform think tank, believes Gordon Brown would have a lot to learn in order to sit comfortably in the suit of an international leader.

"Brown is more skeptical than Blair. His style is to work with advisors and to then get on and do things himself, which is not the way things work in Europe," Murray said. "While Blair evidently enjoys the statesman side of his job, that is something Brown would have to learn."

Where Blair has flair, Brown has a brooding intellect which often leads to him being described as cautious. Alasdair Murray said that on the issue of Europe, one of Brown's watchwords is indeed "caution."

Europe not on Brown's radar

Patrick Dunleavy, professor of politics at the London School of Economics, sees Brown's approach to Europe as muted. "He seems to be developing a well worked out plan for the premiership succession and certainly wants to start by making a big impression," Dunleavy said. "There is much talk about what that impression might be, but nothing has been said about any plan for Europe."

He said the consensus is that Brown is currently neither pro- nor anti-Europe but is simply technocratic. "Theories of a closer union pass him by. That has been his attitude all along, and there is no sign that it has changed. Europe is simply not on his radar," Dunleavy added.

Tony Blair - Downing Street

10 Downing Street: A home fit for a premier

But it is the very issue of Europe which could elevate Brown to 10 Downing Street before the next run to the polls. Next year, Britain is scheduled to vote in a referendum on the EU constitution, and there is little evidence to suggest that Blair can swing the historically euroskeptic nation behind a "yes" vote.

Alasdair Murray said where Blair will likely fail, Brown could succeed. "Brown is the only way to a 'yes.' He's more credible because he's more of a skeptic. Blair is too pro, so Brown should lead the campaign," he said.

Opinion about the tack Brown will take when it comes to campaigning for the referendum is divided. Some analysts believe any deal Tony Blair might have struck with his current chancellor about his future premiership would require Brown to milk his popularity, give the campaign his all, and steer Britain towards approving the constitution.

If the strategy were to fail, it would be a mortal blow to Tony Blair, leaving Gordon Brown to take over but not take the rap because he would only have been the side-kick in the campaign. If, however the referendum scored a "yes" vote, Blair could back out in a final glow of glory.

But others say Brown will keep a healthy distance from the whole issue of the constitution ballot. "He will not choose to undermine the referendum, nor will he put himself in the front line. But it is a short-sighted policy, because if Britain votes against the constitution, he will have a lot of clearing up to do," Murray said.

Skepticism or just blissful ignorance?

So what is it with Britain and Europe? Even without any imminent prospect of London signing up to the single European currency -- indeed that prospect could become even more remote with Brown as ruler -- Britain remains at best dispassionate about the idea of the union.

The Sun, 20.02.2003 Chirac als Wurm

British press is not renowned for promoting the EU

Professor Dunleavy says that is partly because there has never been a political culture of fully embracing the alliance, but adds that media coverage of European issues is so lame that a good percentage of Brits are simply "dazed and confused" by the EU.

Whether Gordon Brown is the man to instill a sense of euro-enthusiasm into the island is more than questionable. What might do it, however, is a "yes" to the EU constitution, but the chances of that actually happening look nothing if not remote.

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