Wednesday, May 4, 2005

As today’s British election in Britain comes to a close, it seems America’s special friend Tony Blair is headed for a victory, but that victory could come at a cost to the “special” trans-Atlantic relationship.

Few doubt a Labor victory. The problem is that Mr. Blair’s lead is shrinking. And in a very Western trend, voter apathy is expected to prove quite high.

Mr. Blair’s opposition has proved to be deficient. The Conservatives remain a shadow of their former Thatcherite glory, and have kept failing to produce the resurgence in the polls promised by former Home Secretary Michael Howard. Similarly, the Liberal Democrats have consistently refused to offer themselves as anything more than an opposition party.

So, while it is doubtful any party will turn out any new voters, both key parties will produce a solid core turnout as their diehard members continue supporting them. The only divergence in this trend might work in Mr. Blair’s favor, as the Conservative’s disastrous performance stirs some disillusioned Labor voters to vote for fear of a Conservative victory.

Yet it is imperative that Mr. Blair woo the public back if he is to secure his legacy in British history. His decision to hold a referendum next year on the European Union’s constitution is one that seriously jeopardizes this legacy. Many feel today’s election turnout will prove a good indicator of the outcome of the constitution referendum.

A European Union member who demands to sit at the table, but will not use the cutlery or adhere to the timetable, the United Kingdom has always made itself heard and contributed to the EU without fully integrating itself with Brussels. This is due to a combination of factors: First, the UK’s thriving economy may be hindered were it to fully integrate itself into the rigid eurozone structures. Then, the British public has a deep, general suspicion of Brussels. Successive British governments have stoked that feeling for easy political capital.

Hence, public and pundits alike were surprised last year when Tony Blair decided to call a popular referendum on the EU constitution. In retrospect, some see it having offered a way to distract people from other troubles at the time, but most are still scratching their heads.

In the past, Mr. Blair could be relied upon to use his personal charm and charisma to pull the election out of the hat. But his political capital with the British people was exhausted by endless battles over British involvement in Iraq, the ongoing failure to find weapons of mass destruction and public spats with Chancellor Gordon Brown, his presumed successor.

Not only did Mr. Blair go against British public opinion on Iraq, but in European terms his decision to call a referendum confirmed to skeptics that he seemed to have more affinity with the Brussels cosmopoles than to the Little Englanders to whom he so masterfully appealed in the 1997 election.

So Mr. Blair has fought a campaign in which he hopes to restore his credibility with the British masses. But at the same time, his shift is likely to affect trans-Atlantic relations and the UK’s place as the bridge between the U.S. and EU.

This campaign will mark the beginning of a period of introspection in British politics. Tony Blair will have to start realigning himself with the British people and hold their hands as he establishes Britain’s place within the EU. Given the ongoing tenor of trans-Atlantic relations, chances are this will involve a shift away from the United States.

There has already been a taste of what is to come with the British about-face on the China arms embargo. While the UK’s decision to join the European chorus calling for lifting the arms embargo was interpreted as a British attack on the U.S., the stance is rooted more in Mr. Blair’s attempt to gradually realign the British people with Europe in time for the referendum.

This can be further seen in London’s decision to side so firmly with Berlin and Paris over Washington in dealings with Iran. Rather than kow-tow to the American hard line, Britain stood firmly with its European partners and helped develop a peaceful strategy to deal with the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb.

While on his most recent trip to Europe President Bush met with Mr. Blair, the meeting was not on English soil and was not nearly as noisy as past Anglo-American summits.

The U.S. administration has already begun realizing Tony Blair’s alliances can no longer be so firmly enmeshed with U.S. policy, and they must keep this in mind as they go forward.

This realization will be especially important as we enter the second half of the year, when a euro-friendly UK assumes the EU presidency as the perfect storm of Iranian nuclear weapons and lifting of the China embargo reaches maximum strength.

For the United States to truly find a solution to either problem, it must be prepared to accept a newly critical partner.

Raffaello Pantucci is a research assistant with the Europe program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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