One of the perennial problems for an aspiring UK Prime Minister is the need to juggle domestic popularity with workable international relationships – especially with our EU partners. Because if you’re seen to suck up too much to the French and Germans, the rantings of the eurosceptic press combined with a public all too willing to believe that the EU is the root of all evil will swiftly ensure a massive drop in domestic popularity. (Sucking up to the US, meanwhile, seems fine.)
Over the last few years Gordon Brown has done a fairly decent job of giving the impression that he thinks the EU is a bit of a disaster. Be it his famous “Five Economic Tests” over joining the Euro (so famous that no one can ever remember what they are), which promise to keep the UK out of the Eurozone for the forseeable future, or occasional rants about how other EU countries should follow his wonderful example when dealing with all things fiscal, his slagging off of the EU and other EU countries seems to have been calculated to create a domestic image of a sensible, rationally sceptical figure, unwilling to leap headlong into the tepid waters of further EU integration without having tested them first.
In contrast to Blair’s disastrous management of his relationship with the EU – where domestically the Prime Minister looks like a rabid Europhile, willing to give away the rebate and God knows what else, yet our EU partners see him as one of the biggest obstacles to any settlement – Brown has relitively successfully cultivated an image of euroreticence in an attempt to avoid being attacked for europhilia. This has, of course, ensured that our continental partners are not particular fans of the Chancellor – they admire his abilities, but find him personally a difficult man to work with.
With Bush not able to remain in the Oval Office for more than another couple of years, Britain’s relationship with the US could well dramatically change by the next General Election. No one has any way of being able to suck up to the future President before November 2008, and will not be able to risk alienating any of the candidates just in case. As such, the one constant in our international relations over the next few years will be the EU – so any future Prime Minister would be a fool not to try and forge their own personal alliances.
David Cameron’s plans are still being formulated, but show some promise – Gordon, as of yet, appears to have no foreign policy objectives at all. This may sound like a blessed relief after the best part of a decade with Prime Minister who seems to care more about what people overseas think than those of us who are his electorate, launching wars and jetting off all over the world on expensive jollies like there’s no tomorrow, but it’s hardly feasible for Prime Minister to ignore international relations to the extent Brown seems to have done. Yes, he’s fairly well up on British trading relations and the economy – but without the personal relationships with other heads of state he’ll never be able to get anything done.
Say what you like about Blair – through a combination of arrogant self-belief and sucking up to the US he’s managed to build himself an international reputation that puts him on the level only of Thatcher and Churchill in terms of Prime Ministerial profiles. Whether it’s Brown, Cameron or some wild card who follows him in to Number 10 as PM, they’re going to have a tough time maintaining the insanely prominent position Blair has occupied on the world stage during his time in office.
So is it a sign of imminent movement on the Labour leadership front that Gordon has dispatched his most loyal minion to Brussels to start buttering up the bureaucrats? While Gordon’s been starting to stick his oar in to issues of terrorism and civil liberties on the domestic front, this is the first real sign of him making a move on the international scene. Has the countdown begun on Brown’s long-awaited move?