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The question mark over Gordon Brown

The question mark over Gordon Brown
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First Published: Fri, May 11 2007. 09 58 AM IST
Updated: Fri, May 11 2007. 09 58 AM IST
Mark Leonard, New York Times
London: A new broom is sweeping through European politics. Just six weeks after regime change in France, a new British prime minister will march onto the international stage.
But where Brussels, Berlin and Washington were overjoyed at Nicolas Sarkozy's election, they look to Gordon Brown's ascendancy with trepidation.
While the Frenchman has left very little to the imagination — giving much publicized speeches on his plans to replace the European constitution with a mini-treaty, his opposition to Turkey's EU bid and his Atlanticism — Brown has maintained an almost Trappist silence on foreign policy.
Diplomats in London are desperately trying to piece together a picture of his priorities by studying his words and talking to his circle. What will they glean from their research?
First, they will find that the people in Brown's circle are keen to distance themselves from the adventurism that drove a wedge between Tony Blair and Labour party members.
While Blair staked his political career on building a British “bridge” between Europe and America, Brown's aides suggest he is likely to step back from both Washington and Brussels.
They suggest that he will develop a philosophy of “British exceptionalism”, restating the importance of British interests (which Brownites feel were neglected by Blair in his attempts to join the euro and court President George W. Bush) and British values (which were eclipsed by the Iraq imbroglio).
The yin and yang of the Brown era — economics and morality — will build on Brown's impressive record of promoting economic stability, tackling global poverty and fighting climate change while he was at the Treasury.
Although Brown has better connections in Washington than any incumbent since Churchill, his friends imply that their man will be no poodle.
Having seen the destructive effect of Iraq on the Labour Party, his aides argue that Brown will place less emphasis on democracy promotion in the Middle East. He seldom speaks about it and shares none of Blair's faith in military intervention. In recent days, his aides have been saying that Brown might step up engagement with Tehran as a way of burying the ghost of Iraq.
When it comes to Europe, Brown has been explicit about his doubts on the euro, his opposition to agricultural protectionism and the restrictive practices of what he refers to as “trade bloc Europe.”
But Brown's closest allies believe that the European Union is moving in his direction. They are fulsome in their praise of Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso's liberalizing instincts, and enjoy explaining that Angela Merkel and Sarkozy (unlike Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand) are soft nationalists who are more interested in domestic reform than European federalism — much like Brown himself.
Two issues will define how Brown is seen in Europe. The first is Angela Merkel's attempt to replace the EU constitution with an amending treaty. By dropping the constitutional trappings of the original text, she hopes to be able to save innovations such as changes in the voting weights, an end to the rotating presidency and strengthened foreign policy machinery.
But will Brown be willing to sign up to the text and face down calls to hold a referendum? The Conservative Party will have a field day if Brown tries to force through a treaty without the cover of a plebiscite or an election victory of his own.
The second issue is the EU budget. One Brown ally explains that “there was incandescence in the Treasury when Blair settled on the EU budget in 2005 without sorting out the CAP.” Officials in Berlin hope to coax Brown into accepting a new treaty in exchange for the promise of progress on the budget next year.
Maybe the biggest change for foreign governments will be Brown’s style. “Blair’s ideal day is spent on the phone to 10 foreign leaders trying to broker some deal through charm,” said a former 10 Downing Street staffer. “Gordon is more of a one-on-one man. He is not as comfortable brokering coalitions and building networks. He is much less of an extrovert than Blair.”
Brown is a practical politician and the most brilliant strategist of his generation. He knows that in an era of globalization, leaders must deliver on the international stage as well as at home.
If he shows flexibility on the EU treaty and the budget, he could find himself at the heart of a global dream team — working closely with Merkel and Sarkozy in Europe, and engaging a new administration in Washington.
But until he is more explicit about his foreign policy philosophy, his colleagues in foreign capitals will continue to fret.
— Mark Leonard, former director of the Foreign Policy Centre, is the author of Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century.
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First Published: Fri, May 11 2007. 09 58 AM IST
More Topics: International News | Europe |