Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Monday, December 22, 2003

Britain's 'twin pillars' collapse over Iraq: News analysis

British Prime Minister Tony Blair reaffirmed in his annual foreign policy speech recently that Britain would keep faith with its "twin pillars" policy -- the country's alliance with the United States and its membership in the European Union (EU).


British Prime Minister Tony Blair reaffirmed in his annual foreign policy speech recently that Britain would keep faith with its "twin pillars" policy -- the country's alliance with the United States and its membership in the European Union (EU).

Playing a role as a "bridge" between Europe and the United States has long been a strategy pursued by Blair, who developed very close ties with the administration of former US president Bill Clinton. The role was greatly reinforced by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.

However, the "twin pillars" suffered a heavy blow earlier this year when France and Germany strongly opposed the Iraq war, which Britain actively joined by committing 45,000 troops to the US-led invasion.

With France continuing to call on the United Nations to take over the US role in post-war Iraq and rapid power transfer to the Iraqis, Britain's "twin pillars" policy appears to have failed. The "bridge" is now attached to only one side -- the United States.

Iraq becomes Britain's Quagmire
Blair's support to the Iraq war also caused problems at home. The absence of UN authorization for the invasion split Blair's Labor Party and the British public as a whole. Two cabinet ministers resigned from Blair's cabinet in protest at his stand and there was a major revolt among his formerly docile parliamentarians.

Now the war is over, a large proportion of Britons, unconvinced by the case for the war, have begun to lose confidence in the Blair's cabinet and the prime minister is facing his most serious political crisis since taking office in 1997.

Special Relationship to EU Membership
In order to gain "unparalleled purchase on international affairs" for a country of its size, Britain wants to have it both ways by offering unconditional support for the United States through the long-cultivated "special relationship" while forging agreements with its European partners at the same time.

Britain's unwavering loyalty to the United States contradicts the stance of its major EU partners, who have little appetite for projecting power overseas.

In the eyes of "old" Europe, with France and Germany taking the lead, Britain would always choose Washington if forced to make a choice between Europe and the United States whose unilateralism clashes with France's search for a new balance of power.

Britain now finds itself in an awkward position of needing to re-define itself to reassert its place in the EU and shed its image as a "poodle" of the United States.

Britain has Little to Gain from US
Over Iraq, while Washington maintained its position of ignoring the opposition from France, Germany, Russia and other UN members, the whole premise of Britain's foreign policy became centered on the special relationship with the United States, which caused deep division in Europe.

Despite its support to the United States, Britain appears to be gaining little from Washington. British companies have yet to win any reconstruction contracts in Iraq and the United States offered Britain no concessions in the dispute over steel tariffs.

Following US President George W. Bush's state visit to Britain late last month, which was overshadowed by anti-war protests, the British public began to cast doubt on the country's relationship with the United States.

Opinion polls showed a large proportion of Britons believe Blair's cozy relationship with the United States has done more harm than good to Britain which some critics are even saying has ceased to be a sovereign state.

Britain has "No Reverse Gear
As Britain and the United States try to woo international support in rebuilding Iraq, there are growing concerns that London is being sidelined by Paris and Berlin.

Blair is anxious to repair relations between "old" Europe and the United States and believes that engaging constructively rather than remaining on the sidelines could give Britain a leading role in molding EU policy.

EU nations are working to draft an EU constitution aimed at streamlining EU decision-making when the 15-nation bloc welcomes its 10 new members next year. Britain is determined to be a good European country by pledging to "work for the successful implementation of the new EU treaty."

In the eyes of some analysts, the Blair cabinet has every right to point to the recent deal on EU defense cooperation brokered by Britain as a sign that its strategy of "positive engagement" in Europe is paying dividends.

But Britain's stand on Iraq and the decision to stay outside the euro zone still limits its role in Europe.

The shared enterprise in Iraq with the United States has now become a shared predicament. Even if the government were minded toput a little distance between it and the tough US administration, it would still be unable to wriggle free of the ties that bind the two nations.

Losing the advantage of gaining influence around the globe by standing side by side with Washington does not seem to be a possible choice for Blair's government.

Despite disagreements between Britain and America over trade, the International Criminal Court and global warming, and no matter who wins the 2004 US presidential election, Britain will continue its efforts to bring the United States and Europe together.

Bridge Rebuilding a Hard Job
Foreign policy, so dominant in the British government policy following the Sept. 11 attacks, is now being subordinated by domestic priorities as Blair tries to win back the support of the British public.

Britain's ambition to act as the bridge between Europe and America appear to be turning to dust over Iraq, but the government now has the chance to revitalize the role in new and more humbling circumstances. Europe does not want to see another transatlantic row after the rift over the Iraq war and realizes that the resuscitation of a common European approach is in the interests of both "old" and "new" Europe.

But regardless of how the British government views its "bridge" role, a sizable gap still exists between the two continents in terms of priorities and strategic outlook.

And so long as Britain appears to share the US administration's priorities in Iraq and Washington's qualms about the European defense, its European credentials will remain suspect when viewed from the "old" Europe.

This is a problem for Britain and the United States who need the support of other nations. They are only likely to get it by softening their rhetoric, focusing on fighting terrorism, ensuring an early transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis and firmly committing to the Middle East peace process.

The real danger for Britain is that by not standing up more vigorously for itself in its dealings with the United States, it risks being ignored in Europe and being taken for granted in Washington.

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