A Labour government in London is not simply the last hope of everyone in Britain that has had enough of the corruption and incompetence of the Major government. It is what every single European Union government wants too. When Tony Blair wins office on 1 May the sense of relief in the chancelleries of western Europe will be palpable.
If they knew the Labour leader better, they might be less enthusiastic. His view of the world, like that of his closest advisers – and of every other Labour leader since the war apart from Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock – is disappointingly Atlanticist. New Labour has looked primarily to America, not Europe, for its thinking about policy and electoral strategy, and the would-be prime minister is ill at ease about the EU. He knows what the polls and focus groups say about the unpopularity of “Europe”; he doesn’t know European politics too well; and he doesn’t like the idea of winning what he thought was the key position just to find – like Aneurin Bevan as a councillor in south Wales in the 1920s – that the important decisions are being made one rung further up the ladder.
Nevertheless, the optimism of the west European political elite is justified. Blair might not be an out-and- out Euro-enthusiast or even particularly au fait with European politics. He is, however, not a pig-headed Europhobe – and his party’s pig-headed Europhobes have been in no position to cause him trouble. Indeed, he wants constructive engagement with Europe, and the mood in the Labour Party remains cautiously Euro-integrationist. A Blair government will not engage in the obstructive histrionics that the Tories made their trademark under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
So Blair is guaranteed an initial warm embrace from the rest of the EU. What then? Of course, nobody knows. But European monetary union will suddenly become crucial. If it goes ahead on time – which still looks likely, despite the difficulties of the German economy – Britain will probably qualify for first-wave membership. If it does and a Blair government joins, or says it will, Britain will be the toast of the continental European political class. But if, as seems more likely, Britain stays out, Blair will have his work cut out if he is to retain any credibility with other European governments, however good his reasons.
The problem, put simply, is that EMU has become the touchstone of commitment to the cause of a united Europe. The decision on joining a single currency has become more than a matter of hard-headed economics. It is also a political decision. To opt out is to damage the prospects of further European integration.
Which would be no problem if going it alone were an option for a Labour Britain. But it is not. Further European integration is essential if the EU is to acquire the powers Labour needs it to have in the spheres of economic, environmental and security policy.
So what can Labour do? Its best bet is to come up with a far-reaching programme for European integration that can be implemented whatever happens to EMU – whether or not it goes ahead as planned, and whether or not Britain is part of it. In particular, a Blair government should table proposals for a radical democratisation of the EU, based on a massive increase in the powers of the European Parliament, and should make clear its enthusiasm for reviving Jacques Delors’ “Eurokeynesian” plans for employment generation. This would not go down as well with other EU governments as an unambiguous commitment to EMU – but it would be a lot better than nothing.