Blair and the founding fathers

Tony Blair

More on Tony Blair’s speech in Oxford last Thursday (which you can read here). He declares that:

“The vision is the one I share with Europe’s founders: an ever closer union of nation states, cooperating, as of sovereign right, where it is in their interest to do so. I don’t support ever closer union for the sake of it; but precisely because, in the world in which we live, it will be the only way of advancing our national interest effectively.”

Was this really the vision of the founders, a friend asks. The Schuman declaration, after all, speaks of the aim of world peace and explicitly mentions the role of the United Nations. (Read the Schuman declaration here.) This is rather different to the advancement of national interests as a sovereign right.

However, this speech would have attracted entirely different headlines if it had mentioned the role of the United Nations in the prevention of war. It is worth re-reading the sentence “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.” and thinking back to how much time the WMD inspectors were given in Iraq.

I think it is better to look forward rather than backward. After all, this is one of the main themes of the speech: that the reasons for developing the EU are no longer the same as those for creating it in the first place. The sentence that follows the first Blair quote captures it perfectly:

“The nature of globalisation; the emergence of China and India; the fact that no European country will in time be large or powerful enough to be a major power on its own: all of this means, to me, that the nations which do well will be the ones that build the strongest alliances.”

This is the point. It will be impossible for Britain, or any other European country, to make the most of the future if it is at the same time making two fingers at its closest friends and allies. Peace in Europe may be a fact, but it is no longer persuasive. Memories are short: the future is longer.

Compare what Blair said with Gordon Brown’s speech to the Fabian Society on 14 January (which you can read here):

“by taking the right long term decisions Britain can stand alongside China, India and America as one of the great success stories of the next global era.”

This is the alternative, that Britain seeks to be a power in the world independently of the rest of Europe. As a policy, it worked in the 19th century but was clearly out of date two decades into the 20th. It seems to me to make no sense that it can make a comeback in the 21st.

To return to the founding fathers, the reason why the European Union has lasted is because (1) it is based on effective institutions rather than temporary political understandings among the member states and (2) those institutions were able to deliver solutions to common problems. Monnet, Schuman and the others understood this, and it remains the case. The challenge for the EU is to defend those institutions while reshaping them to deal with today’s problems. While I would be happier if the prime minister had spelled this out more explicitly, at least we have something to work with.

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