Prime Minister Blair, I imagine, will be quite relieved to have put the Atlantic between himself and Europe as he dines with President Bush at the White House tonight. Compared to the world of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder (both of whom apparently think "no" means "maybe"), the America of Michael Jackson looks like a haven of sanity.
After last week's French left hook and Dutch body blow, the European constitution was counted out of the ring by the British yesterday, when Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made it clear that next year's British referendum would not take place. In other words, the process of ratifying the constitution has ground to a halt, and it is hard to see what could set it in motion again.
Even before the coup de grace, however, the Franco-German propaganda machine had begun trying to change the subject. Messrs. Chirac and Schroeder are demanding that Mr. Blair give up the British rebate, the deal negotiated a quarter of a century ago by Margaret Thatcher to limit the liabilities of British taxpayers toward European (especially French) farmers. This is a transparent attempt to whip up anti-British feeling across the Continent: It is the one issue on which Mr. Chirac can appeal to the selfish instincts of the New Europe (where large, poor agricultural sectors crave subsidies), for which he hardly bothers to conceal his contempt.
Mr. Blair won't let such maneuvers distract him. The issue that will surely dominate his talks with the president is not aid to Africa, or global warming, or any of the other pseudo-problems that provide a smokescreen to conceal from Mr. Blair's European partners how much closer he is to Mr. Bush.
No: The real problem for Mr. Blair is that he represents a continent in crisis. Now that it is obvious even to the elites of Paris, Brussels, and Berlin that the voters no longer support the project of political integration that has sustained their delusions of grandeur for half a century, there is a real possibility that the European Union will start to disintegrate. Mr. Blair's task is to persuade Mr. Bush that America still needs Europe as the other half of "the West" to preserve the global balance of power. But after the experience of Iraq, who could blame the president for concluding that Europe is too unreliable to be his main ally?
There are already signs that centrifugal forces might begin to tear apart the rickety structure of European monetary union. The German economics minister and the head of the Bundesbank were reported last week to hold serious discussions about a fallback plan to renationalize the currency in the event of a collapse of the euro. Opinion polls show that most Germans would still much rather have the deutsche mark back, and blame the one-size-fits-all monetary policies of the Eurozone for their economic malaise. Even if the euro is only part of the explanation for Germany's unemployment and low growth, the loss of economic sovereignty is certainly inhibiting German leaders from forcing through reforms.
Quite apart from the fragility of the euro, however, the referendums in France and the Netherlands have exposed a deeper rift within the European Union: How to respond to Islam? Fear of Muslim immigration from North Africa and the Middle East was a strong, though rarely acknowledged, factor in both plebiscites. On this the political class is in denial. As the politicians see it, Europe needs mass immigration to preserve its standard of living in an era of declining birthrates. But thinking Europeans are much more alarmed by the real prospect of a Muslim Europe by the end of the century than the politicians, whose time horizons hardly extend beyond the next parliament.
So today's Bush-Blair meeting will be about exploring the possibility of a new transatlantic rapprochement. A chastened Europe, having abandoned its pretensions to superpower status, might be more realistic about its need for American protection. If Mr. Blair can steer Europe back in an Atlanticist direction, he will have achieved more than any European leader since Thatcher. I'm certainly not holding my breath.
The best hope of rebuilding the Atlantic alliance is to base its foundations on the solid rock of the Anglo-American special relationship, rather than the fading dream of a united Europe - especially now that the dream has become a nightmare.