The Blair of reform

It is possible that I have been wrong about Tony Blair. On a previous occasion, I listed him as one of those European leaders who are past their expiry date. But if the speech he gave in the European Parliament last Thursday – and the reception it got – is anything to go by, he may just have reinvented himself as the reformist leader Europe now needs.

That is a big if and I know it. Especially with Prime Minister Blair, who often is more successful at talking the talk than at walking the walk – most of all in recent years. But instead of trying to predict the results of his presidency on the basis of recent performance at the head of a government whose main goal seems to be staying in power, perhaps we should look at the early years of his government in the late nineteen nineties. Then, like now, he had just taken over from a sclerotic ancien régime that had lost public confidence. Then, like now, he surprised and inspired with an ambitious agenda for genuine reform. Then, like now, the chances for failure were substantial. Then, many reforms were never carried out. Now, we must try to avoid that.

Blair’s speech, at least, did strike the right tone in many ways. On tendencies to keep everything as it is and avoid debate:

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.

This is not just a misrepresentation. It is to intimidate those who want change in Europe by representing the desire for change as betrayal of the European ideal, to try to shut off serious debate about Europe’s future by claiming that the very insistence on debate is to embrace the anti-Europe.

On why the Constitution referendums failed:

There are two possible explanations. One is that people studied the Constitution and disagreed with its precise articles. I doubt that was the basis of the majority ‘no’. This was not an issue of bad drafting or specific textual disagreement.

The other explanation is that the Constitution became merely the vehicle for the people to register a wider and deeper discontent with the state of affairs in Europe. I believe this to be the correct analysis.

If so, it is not a crisis of political institutions, it is a crisis of political leadership.

On “social Europe”:

What would a different policy agenda for Europe look like?

First, it would modernise our social model. Again some have suggested I want to abandon Europe’s social model. But tell me: what type of social model is it that has 20m unemployed in Europe, productivity rates falling behind those of the USA; that is allowing more science graduates to be produced by India than by Europe; and that, on any relative index of a modern economy – skills, R&D, patents, IT, is going down not up. India will expand its biotechnology sector fivefold in the next five years. China has trebled its spending on R&D in the last five.

Of the top 20 universities in the world today, only two are now in Europe.

The purpose of our social model should be to enhance our ability to compete, to help our people cope with globalisation, to let them embrace its opportunities and avoid its dangers. Of course we need a social Europe. But it must be a social Europe that works.

There were concrete proposals on how to reform Europe’s economies and achieve the goals of the Lisbon agenda:

The Kok report in 2004 shows the way. Investment in knowledge, in skills, in active labour market policies, in science parks and innovation, in higher education, in urban regeneration, in help for small businesses. This is modern social policy, not regulation and job protection that may save some jobs for a time at the expense of many jobs in the future.

and on how to reform the EU’s budget:

Again the Sapir report shows the way. Published by the European Commission in 2003, it sets out in clear detail what a modern European Budget would look like. Put it into practice. But a modern Budget for Europe is not one that 10 years from now is still spending 40 per cent of its money on the CAP.

What I did miss, however, was the democratic aspect. Oh, he did ask the right questions:

Just reflect. The Laeken Declaration which launched the Constitution was designed “to bring Europe closer to the people”. Did it? […]

I have sat through Council Conclusions after Council Conclusions describing how we are “reconnecting Europe to the people”. Are we?

Well, perhaps not, but is he? While he did not shun controversy when talking about socio-economic policy and changes to the budget, his speech made no mention of any proposals to make Europe more transparent and accountable. That is: other than implementing policies people should, but in many cases do not yet, like. I think we have hit a critical point here, and one that seems to be the Third Way’s main weakness: its “we know best” attitude and resulting contempt for criticism, and democratic checks and balances. This is not good, as the very same factors contributed so much to Europe’s current illness. We could, however, use Blair’s strengths as part of the therapy, and try alleviating the side-effects by other means.

Consider the whole of his government from 1997 until now. We can say that the analysis and promises were good at the onset (as they are now) but many were either not implemented at all (like electoral reform) or only half-heartedly (devolution). The will to actually carry out reform proposals fell victim to practical problems, undoubtedly, but most of all to weakness in the face of opposition and the overruling desire to stay in power. Despite those broken promises, however, Blair continued to win elections, thanks to his amazing talent to say just that what people want to hear.

It is the analysis, the proposals, and the communication skills we can use for Europe – the power hunger must be neutralised and some democratic reform must be added. One advantage: unlike the introduction of proportional representation in the UK, democratic reform of Europe will not undermine Blair’s own power base. On the contrary, easy-to-introduce reforms like more transparency in the Council and more influence for parliaments (whether European or national) are likely to benefit leaders with good communicative skills – and their causes. So although it may not be his first priority, he may be able to see how pushing for more democracy at a European level could be made to serve his interests.

Still, there is no way this could be achieved without the support of other European leaders, especially those with some influence. It is time for them to throw in their lot with Blair and put their money where their mouth is on economic and democratic reform. Inspiring words by the incoming Council president are one thing if you want people to accept new policies, but they are only the first step. Reforms have to be carried out too – and that is a responsibility which all European leaders, not just Blair, have to take up.

There is a risk here as regards timing. While the memory of the referendum fiascos may still be fresh, it could be too early for true reform, with Chirac in power till 2007, Berlusconi still in place, the Benelux in a shambles and many Central-European governments mired in political squabbles. The German elections, planned for September, will therefore be critical. If they end up the right way, it could be on time to bring the largest EU country on board the reform train. But much depends on the exact views the new government, likely to be led by Angela Merkel, has on EU reform. This is by no means clear: while promising sounds come from the likely coalition partner, the liberal FDP, Merkel’s CDU still has a strong farmers’ constituency and a long history of corporatism.

As things stand now, however, the Blair and Merkel combination is the only hope we have to get things moving.

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