At the first conference of the European Movement in The Hague, which I covered for The Christian Science Monitor in 1948, Winston Churchill called for the creation of a United States of Europe to bring peace to a war-ravaged continent. But Churchill, and Britain, were not willing to cede full sovereignty to such a union. Instead, Britain remained wedded to serving as an "Atlantic bridge" to America. In the end, Britain did join what eventually became the European Union -- but not until 1973.
Now, in the wake of the breakdown of the Brussels summit in an angry dispute over constitution and farm subsidies, Britain is seeking once more to play a special role in Europe. On Monday, as Prime Minister Tony Blair prepared to enunciate in Brussels his vision of a more competitive Europe, he told his Parliament that Europe cannot wait 10 years or more to change. With American backing, he seemed to be seeking a leadership role in Europe.
The signs are favorable. Britain is in better shape economically than France or Germany. The prime minister, despite his shrunken parliamentary majority, is in better shape with his electorate than either President Jacques Chirac or Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. And, for Mr. Blair, the battle for Europe must be a welcome change from the battle over Iraq.
An opinion poll in Britain last weekend showed Blair supported by almost three quarters of British voters in his controversy with his continental partners.
Blair also has some coincidences in the calendar working for him. On July 1 he assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union. On July 6 he plays host to the summit in Scotland of the G-8 (the eight major industrial powers). At that meeting President Bush is likely to hear a lot about Kyoto and climate change, calculated to endear Blair further to his constituents.
But the threatened fracture of a Europe grown to 25 states will not go away. There is even some talk, not yet serious, about a rollback from the euro to abandoned national currencies. Britain never did switch from sterling to the euro.
Altogether, this looks like Tony Blair's hour on the world stage. And he undoubtedly expects some support from Mr. Bush, who owes him one ... maybe a couple.
X Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.