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Blair’s Vision for Europe: Economic Modernization Can Save our Societies     Print Email

When then-Prime Minister Tony Blair went to the podium of the European Parliament in June 2005, he spoke at one of the darkest hours in the history of the European Union. The assembly was reeling under the shock of seeing the draft Constitution repudiated by voters in France. When Blair finished speaking an hour later, the parliamentarians rose to their feet in applause, galvanized by the British leader’s apparently undimmed enthusiasm for the potential of European unity to help Europeans safeguard their societies. Blair did not disguise his formula for success: governments needed to change and liberalize their economies or else see their societies succumb to extremism as they suffocated under the pressures of globalization.

 

The speech was memorable in another important way. Blair used the occasion to attack the standard rhetoric by many Europeans that Britain – under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then under his own government – had devastated its own people and destroyed its own social conscience through harsh capitalism and the absence of any sentiments of traditional solidarity. Blair did not gloss over the fact that his government had shunned the option of joining the euro because it wanted to pursue more flexible, innovative economic policies. But he challenged the cliché that British people are the worse off for it.

 

And, of course, he emphasized the British view that economic vitality goes hand in hand with international stature in every domain from political and military clout to development.

In the end, the people who were probably most disappointed by the prime minister’s speech were those among his own followers in Britain who were fervently pro-European. Their view was that Blair himself failed to live up to his own stirring words and vision because he never really took on the political challenge of Britain’s hard-line anti-Europeans. Part of the explanation for that is, as an earlier prime minister famously said, “events.” In this case, it was the Iraq war and the prime minister’s support for it that fatally compromised any chances he might have had to rally other Europeans to his vision. That fate does not diminish the vision outlined in the speech, excerpted here.

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Whatever else people disagree upon in Europe today, they at least agree on one point: Europe is in the midst of a profound debate about its future… 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. It is a mindset I have fought against all my political life. Ideals survive through change. They die through inertia in the face of challenge.

I am a passionate pro-European. Since being Prime Minister I signed the Social Chapter, helped, along with France, to create the modern European Defense Policy, have played my part in the Amsterdam, the Nice, then the Rome Treaties. This is a union of values, of solidarity between nations and people, of not just a common market in which we trade but a common political space in which we live as citizens. It always will be. I believe in Europe as a political project. I believe in Europe with a strong and caring social dimension. I would never accept a Europe that was simply an economic market.

...There is not some division between the Europe necessary to succeed economically and social Europe. Political Europe and economic Europe do not live in separate rooms. The purpose of social Europe and economic Europe should be to sustain each other. The purpose of political Europe should be to promote the democratic and effective institutions to develop policy in these two spheres and across the board where we want and need to cooperate in our mutual interest.

But the purpose of political leadership is to get the policies right for today’s world. If Europe defaulted to euro-skepticism, or if European nations faced with this immense challenge decide to huddle together hoping we can avoid globalization, shrink away from confronting the changes around us, take refuge in the present policies of Europe as if by constantly repeating them, we would by the very act of repetition make them more relevant – then we risk failure. Failure on a grand, strategic scale. This is not a time to accuse those who want Europe to change of betraying Europe. It is a time to recognize that only by change will Europe recover its strength, its relevance, its idealism and therefore its support amongst the people. The issue is not about the idea of the European Union. It is about modernization. It is about policy. It is not a debate about how to abandon Europe but how to make it do what it was set up to do: improve the lives of people. And right now, they aren’t convinced.

...[The defeat of the proposed European constitution was] not a crisis of political institutions, it is a crisis of political leadership. People in Europe are posing hard questions to us. They worry about globalization, job security, about pensions and living standards. They see not just their economy but their society changing around them. Traditional communities are broken up, ethnic patterns are changing, family life is under strain as families struggle to balance work and home.

We are living through an era of profound upheaval and change. Look at our children and the technology they use and the job market they face. The world is unrecognizable from that we experienced as students 20, 30 years ago. When such change occurs, moderate people must give leadership. If they don’t, the extremes gain traction on the political process. It happens within a nation. It is happening in Europe now.

That is the context in which the budget debate should be set. People say: we need the budget to restore Europe’s credibility. Of course we do. But it should be the right budget. It shouldn’t be abstracted from the debate about Europe’s crisis. It should be part of the answer to it.

What would a different policy agenda for Europe look like?

First, it would modernize 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 20 million unemployed in Europe; productivity rates falling behind those of the U.S.A.; 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 [Research and Development], patents, IT [Information Technology] – 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 globalization, 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.

And we’ve been told how to do it. The Kok report in 2004 shows the way: Investment in knowledge, in skills, in active labor 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 since this is a day for demolishing caricatures, let me demolish one other: the idea that Britain is in the grip of some extreme Anglo-Saxon market philosophy that tramples on the poor and disadvantaged. The present British government has introduced the new deal for the unemployed, and the largest jobs program in Europe that has seen long-term youth unemployment virtually abolished. It has increased investment in our public services more than any other European country in the past five years. We needed to, it is true, but we did it. We have introduced Britain’s first minimum wage. We have regenerated our cities. We have lifted almost one million children out of poverty and two million pensioners out of acute hardship and are embarked on the most radical expansion of childcare, maternity and paternity rights in our country’s history. It is just that we have done it on the basis of and not at the expense of a strong economy.

Secondly, let the budget reflect these realities. 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 percent of its money on the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy].

Thirdly, implement the Lisbon Agenda. On jobs, labor market participation, school leavers, lifelong learning, we are making progress that nowhere near matches the precise targets we set out at Lisbon. That Agenda told us what to do. Let us do it.

Fourth, and here I tread carefully, get a macroeconomic framework for Europe that is disciplined but also flexible. It is not for me to comment on the Eurozone. I just say this: if we agreed real progress on economic reform, if we demonstrated real seriousness on structural change, then people would perceive reform of macro policy as sensible and rational, not a product of fiscal laxity but of commonsense. And we need such reform urgently if Europe is to grow.

After the economic and social challenges, then let us confront another set of linked issues – crime, security and immigration. Crime is now crossing borders more easily than ever before. Organized crime costs the UK at least £20bn annually [US$27.25bn]. Migration has doubled in the past 20 years. Much of the migration is healthy and welcome. But it must be managed. Illegal immigration is an issue for all our nations, and a human tragedy for many thousands of people. It is estimated that 70 percent of illegal immigrants have their passage facilitated by organized crime groups. Then there is the repugnant practice of human trafficking whereby organized gangs move people from one region to another with the intention of exploiting them when they arrive. Between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked globally each year. Every year over 100,000 women are victims of trafficking in the European Union.

Again, a relevant agenda in Justice and Home Affairs would focus on these issues: implementing the EU action plan on counter-terrorism, which has huge potential to improve law enforcement as well as addressing the radicalization and recruitment of terrorists; cross-border intelligence and policing on organized crime; developing proposals to hit the people and drug traffickers hard, in opening up their bank accounts, harassing their activities, arresting their leading members and bringing them to justice; getting returns agreements for failed asylum seekers and illegal immigrants from neighboring countries and others; developing biometric technology to make Europe’s borders secure.

Then there is the whole area of the CFSP [Common Foreign and Security Policy]. We should be agreeing on practical measures to enhance European defense capability; be prepared to take on more missions of peacekeeping and enforcement; develop the capability, with NATO or where NATO does not want to be engaged outside it; to be able to intervene quickly and effectively in support of conflict resolution. Look at the numbers in European armies today and our expenditure. Do they really answer the strategic needs of today?

Such a defense policy is a necessary part of an effective foreign policy. But even without it, we should be seeing how we can make Europe’s influence count. When the European Union agreed recently a doubling of aid to Africa, it was an immediate boost not just for that troubled continent, but for European cooperation. We are world leaders in development and proud of it. We should be leading the way on promoting a new multi-lateral trade agreement which will increase trade for all, especially the poorest nations. We are leading the debate on climate change and developing pan-European policies to tackle it. Thanks to Javier Solana, Europe has started to make its presence felt in the MEPP [Middle East Peace Process]. But my point is very simple. A strong Europe would be an active player in foreign policy, a good partner of course to the U.S., but also capable of demonstrating its own capacity to shape and move the world forward.

Such a Europe – its economy in the process of being modernized, its security enhanced by clear action within our borders and beyond – would be a confident Europe. It would be a Europe confident enough to see enlargement not as a threat, as if membership were a zero sum game in which old members lose as new members gain, but an extraordinary, historic opportunity to build a greater and more powerful union. Because be under no illusion: if we stop enlargement or shut out its natural consequences, it wouldn’t, in the end, save one job, keep one firm in business, prevent one delocalization. For a time it might but not for long. And in the meantime Europe will become more narrow, more introspective and those who garner support will be those not in the traditions of European idealism but in those of outdated nationalism and xenophobia. But I tell you in all frankness: it is a contradiction to be in favor of liberalizing Europe’s membership but against opening up its economy.

If we set out that clear direction; if we then combined it with the Commission – as this one under José Manuel Barroso’s leadership is fully capable of doing – that is prepared to send back some of the unnecessary regulation, peel back some of the bureaucracy and become a champion of a global, outward-looking, competitive Europe, then it will not be hard to capture the imagination and support of the people of Europe.

...The people of Europe are speaking to us. They are posing the questions. They are wanting our leadership. It is time we gave it to them.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.