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Rule Britannia

June 20, 2005

Britain, of all places, is on a roll. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who hosts the G-8 gathering of industrialized nations next month, is pressing other leaders to join Britain in launching a Marshall Plan for Africa. Already, Blair has shamed the Bush administration into embracing a debt-relief proposal, and he will no doubt continue lobbying Washington to loosen its purse strings.

Blair, who was elected to a third term last month, is also about to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union just at the moment when things on the continent are breaking London's way. The Berlin-Paris axis, which seemed intent on freezing out Britain from Europe's inner core in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war, is fraying. Germany's Gerhard Schroeder faces an uphill battle to win September's national elections, and France's Jacques Chirac was humiliated when his citizens rejected the new European Union constitution at the polls.

For Blair, the French "non" was a godsend. The prime minister was able to call off his own referendum (it was considered unnecessary given the constitution's defeat in France and the Netherlands). A British vote on the document could have hastened Blair's exit. In fact, the loss of momentum for federalists seeking an "ever closer" Europe comes as a relief to Britain, which favors a looser union of sovereign nations. Britain remains the vital interlocutor between Europe and the U.S., a position that gives it great influence with the EU's newer Eastern members, which are more eager to strengthen the transatlantic alliance.

Of course, the war in Iraq remains hugely unpopular in Britain, and Blair's Labor Party lost about 100 seats in Parliament for his unwavering support of President Bush. And the war -- more precisely, leaked memos about it -- has caused Blair headaches, even though they do show that British diplomats, who carry a stronger strain of imperial DNA, were far warier than their U.S. counterparts about the dangers of occupying Iraq without a well-conceived plan.

Blair's loyalty to Bush now gives him license to pester the president endlessly, not only about the need to address Africa's plight, but also about the need to become more engaged in the Mideast peace process and to do something about global warming.

The strength of the British economy, which could soon leapfrog past Germany to become the world's third-largest, also gives Blair and Gordon Brown, his powerful chancellor of the exchequer, license to pester fellow EU leaders about proper economic management. Britain has long sought to make EU regulations more friendly to business.

If the British were once nervous about not embracing Europe's single currency, they are no longer. The Bank of England has been better able than the new European Central Bank to manage inflation and interest rates without crimping growth.

Last but certainly not least, Britain is at the epicenter of the world's most popular sport. A Russian may have bought Chelsea and an American may own Manchester United, but it was Englishman-owned Liverpool that was crowned European champion last month.

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