British Prime Minister Tony Blair challenged the European Union on Thursday to institute reforms to meet the challenges of the global economy, saying the bloc's constitutional and budget crisis was an opportunity for change.
In a swipe at his French and German peers, Blair said the E.U. was facing a crisis of political leadership and economic stagnation that made it hard to win voter support for the union's troubled constitution in most of the 25 member countries.
Addressing the European Parliament to set out priorities for Britain's six-month turn with the E.U. presidency beginning July 1, Blair said it was wrong to caricature the choice as being between broad political consensus and a mere free trade area.
"This is not a time to accuse those who want Europe to change of betraying Europe," Blair said. "It is a time to recognize that only by change will Europe recover its strength, its relevance, its idealism and therefore its support amongst the people."
Blair's speech came at a time of escalating rhetoric among E.U. leaders.
Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, whose country is turning over the E.U. presidency, blamed Blair for the failure last week of an E.U. summit, which ended without a long-term budget plan. Juncker urged supporters of a political union to resist what he called attempts to make the E.U. nothing more than an economic zone.
"Our generation does not have the right to undo what previous generations built," Juncker said, earning a standing ovation. "Future generations will need a political Europe, because if it isn't politically united, it will drift away."
French President Jacques Chirac told his cabinet Wednesday that "British intransigence" had sunk a compromise at the Brussels summit, plunging Europe into crisis.
Blair said the E.U. urgently needed economic reform to rekindle growth and must gradually reduce the share of its budget spent on farm subsidies. He cited Britain's social and economic model as a success.
During his speech, Blair was both heckled and cheered when he told E.U. lawmakers, "I am a passionate pro-European."
In response to people in France and Germany who have accused Britain of wanting to replace the European social model with an "Anglo-Saxon" economic free-for-all, Blair retorted: "What type of social model is it that has 20 million unemployed in Europe?"