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Europe: Follow this leader?

Despite early hopes of a strategic drive for leadership in Europe, the dismal election result illustrates that Britain under Blair remains firmly in the middle of the past, argues Don Flynn.

It might seem strange to recall but only a little more than two years ago Tony Blair and his new Labour party made one of their biggest pitches for general election votes the fact that they alone could be depended upon to provide leadership in Europe. Surveying the wreckage of the recent elections to the European Parliament it is clear that the leadership offered to Labour voters in Britain has been woefully inadequate.

Throughout the period of the campaign the party utterly failed to offer the electorate a convincing argument as to why Blair's acolytes should be trusted to take the message to the Strasbourg Parliament, or even that there was any distinctive message to take there in the first place. Neither was this just a blimp caused by local national difficulties and the fact that the prime minister's thoughts were concentrated on the Balkans.

Right across the EU member states the message was the same: the closer the national government to the Blairite third way, the more unconvinced the electorates that it had anything useful to say on Europe. Two years of alleged leadership on this question has brought the European project to its lowest ebb ever in terms of popular support and appeal.

It may seem ironic, but new Labour's loss of its grip on the popular politics of Britain came at the same moment as its leader's biggest triumph. Detestable as the nightly newscasts were of NATO bombing raids 15,000 feet above Serb cities and Kosovar refugee convoys, the Balkans war did achieve its immediate goal of expelling Milosevic from the province. The fact that it is likely to prove one of those historic victories where the real problems start when we all have to learn to live with this triumph is perhaps another matter. The European leaders who did so much to uncork the genie of ultra-nationalism and release it from the bottle in which it had been contained by Tito's federal republic seem, for the time being, to be bereft of ideas hinting at a long-term solution. We can be assured that the one idea they do have, of keeping NATO forces in the region for many years to come, is not a long-term solution.

On the European front - is there any evidence of Blairite leadership in the face of crisis? Go back 18 months - to the period of the UK presidency of the European Council, a time when key decisions needed to be taken in relation to the Amsterdam treaty revision of Maastricht and the euro was struggling to be born - and we find the widespread view in Europe was that Blair's leadership was generally considered to be lost time for the EU. During the whole of the past two years, Labour has stirred itself out of a torpor only on issues regarded as crucial to narrow British interests - from harmonised tax regimes, through to the attempt to preserve duty-free perks - rather than expanding the role and vision of a genuine European political and social entity. Maybe the tone and demeanour of the British politicians and civil servants was changed over this period - with less table banging and a bit more francophone touchie-feeliness - but Britain remains firmly in the middle of the pack when it comes to efforts to solve all the really big problems that lay before the countries of the region.

How could it be any different when the country remains outside of the biggest and boldest leap into the 'new' currently around? Make no mistake about it, the future of the EU as a steady-as- she-goes, don't-frighten-the servants, middle-of-the-road project of the comfortably off bourgeoisie hangs of the fate of its wretched single currency. Get the euro right, and centrist Europe will have the means to grease its modest growth rates in the period ahead, to expand its reaches into the countries of central Europe, and to offer the US dollar a degree of competition as the world's leading currency. Get it wrong, and it's a whole different ball game. A permanent dip in the value of the currency would kill off the signs of economic recovery which have emerged in recent times. A flat EU economy means one unable to do battle with the US in the world markets. A further erosion of the position of European traders and manufacturers means pressure on the national governments for expenditure cut-backs, and the loss of services and public goods associated with the distinctive feature of liberal capitalism in European - its welfare state systems.

These are all pretty big issues, and yet the best that Blair can say to the Europeans he purports to offer leadership to is, you work on it, make the sacrifices, sort the whole thing out, and when you've done that, we'll be happy to join.

This is not a pretty sight. It is however just about what you would expect from a politics of the European Union which is so fundamentally contingent on the economic component of its project. The post-war architects of the EU believed this to be the virtue of the scheme for pulling all the countries of the region together into a structure in which the benefits of cooperation would outweigh the desire to win the permanently-waged battle for hegemony and dominance. Strap their economies sufficiently tightly together, reasoned Monet and his co-thinkers, and cooperation through federal political systems would naturally fall into place. The problem that they were not required to confront in the early days of the project, in the 1950s and 60s, was the fact that privileging the position of the economy meant simultaneously privileging the position of the property-owning classes.

Within the context of the essentially social democratic policies which ruled the roost in the post-war decades, the relative strength of the bourgeoisie could not have been a cause for great alarm, since the power of the state was always that much greater. But what if that power fell away, allowing the leverage to pass more decisively in favour of entrepreneurs whose wealth and influence made even the largest and most important of the national governments tremble? In other words, how has the liberalisation, de-regulation and privatisation drives of the 1980s and 90s unbalanced the fundamental proposition at the heart of the European project at its inception, that national governments wedded to economic interests lead naturally in the direction of a united, federal Europe?

The answer is that de-regulation has unpicked much of the logic that allowed the European architects to believe that economics led the way to political union in Europe. The predatory capitalists of the modern epoch hunt the world for their own kind of fish - other multinational operations which hold out the prospect of freedom from the national context, rather than subordination to its own plans for development and progress.

Particular political arrangements have their attractions at specific moments of time, and for whole periods a Murdoch might identify with a Blair, a Toyota might throw its lot in with the North East of England, or the stock markets might speak up for the single currency. This temporary identification is no basis to build a movement for the radical restructuring of national states however, because the modern-day capitalist simply has too many options ever to want to tie him or herself to a project which is fraught with uncertainty and will at the very least go through periods of falter and set-back. The up-to-date world-devouring bourgeois sees no reason to sit around and endure such problematic periods, and will move on to areas of greater and more immediate profitability. For this reason the European Union project flounders; economics is no longer its ally, but rather a deep and pervasive problem area which has to be tackled and overcome.

The swing to the right that became discernible across virtually all member states during the parliamentary election has produced some new, novel features. Eurosceptism - that political ideology of egoistic mega-entrepreneurs and carpetbaggers - has moved beyond its eccentric British form to become a powerful force in the Scandinavian countries, France, and even Germany. They will grow more powerful in the future as they pick up the message of serious global big business, that regional free market agreements interest them a lot less now than they did a decade ago. The whole world has gone free market during that time, and the terms of global trade have been made sufficiently secure by the dominance of the US economic super-power to make it seem that they do not require regulations and directives from the mandarins of Brussels to shore up their world wide activities.

For socialists and radicals, the really gloomy message for the future is not so much that the European Union heralds a capitalist super state, but that the capital at its core seems less and less interested in the European Union. Free market economics, contrary to the good old religion, will not bring political union in their wake, but a barren desert at the level of political control, where neither regional union nor national states have very much influence at all over the really important decisions which decide the future prosperity of millions.

And this is the moment that Labour has chosen to abandon its historic traditions and throw its lot in with the bourgeoisie. It makes no sense, and quite possibly it is the nonsense of the Blairite version of the third way that has been perceived by the people of Europe, and led to this comprehensive rejection of new Labour leadership.