Britain’s EU Presidency: Blair blowing the trumpets

, by Georgina Vincent

Britain's EU Presidency: Blair blowing the trumpets

It cannot be denied that the European project was in a state of disarray when Britain took over the Presidency on 1st July 2005. Four years of hard work had gone into driving the Constitution forward, only to be smashed by a resounding “no” vote in the French and Dutch referendums.

In addition, a deal on the next seven-year budget had recently been rejected by five member states, Britain included. However, a week before he took up the mantle, Blair came to the European Parliament and, against all predictions, won applause with a speech that announced, “The people are blowing the trumpets around the city walls. Are we listening?”

All very stirring. But in a presidency that, perhaps inevitably, given Britain’s habitually pained relationship with the rest of the EU, came under criticism from all quarters, what did Blair actually deliver? Peter Guilford, a consultancy director in Brussels, noted that, “They narrowly avoided some serious disasters, but they didn’t find any magic silver bullet breakthrough.”

Perhaps most infamously, after over 30 hours of discussion, a late-night budget deal negotiated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel meant that Britain arranged to give back part of its contentious rebate, on the proviso that there would be a new review of EU spending during the life of the current budget. The unfortunate Mr. Blair came under fire at home for giving away too much and making little progress on his goal of reforming the CAP, whilst further a field it was suggested that he had left negotiations far too late in the day to be effective. Merkel, however, came out of the affair glowingly, being championed as an integrator at her first EU meeting. However, according to John Palmer at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, the fact that a deal was made at all was in itself a success, “A collapse of the budget talks might well have lent at least passing credibility to wild speculation about the slow break-up of the European Union - perhaps starting with the disintegration of the Euro area.”

On a more positive note, starting the ball rolling for membership talks with Turkey and Croatia was a great victory for Mr. Blair, while Macedonia also became a candidate, despite it being made clear that entry talks may not start for years. A telephone and email data retention deal was also a success, forcing telephone operators and internet service providers to store data in the fight against terrorism and organised crime.

Having put Africa at the top of the agenda at the G8 at Gleneagles, which will be remembered for the Live 8 concerts and Make Poverty History campaigns, Britain gave its backing to a UN agreement on protecting civilians from genocide but received some disapproval as it helped cut a deal on EU sugar subsidies, as demanded by the WTO, benefiting certain countries but potentially expense of others.

All in all, something of a mixed bag for Mr. Blair, who was in the unenviable position of having to give leadership to a 25-member group whilst desperately attempting to protect his own national interest. Indeed, the notion of the Presidency itself came under question, with critics suggesting that it lends no real power to whoever holds it in its continuing rotation. The proposed Constitution called for its abolition and instead for a four-year presidency to be led, not by one of the players in the game, but by a figure chosen by the Member States, an idea which has won support from many different corners.

So perhaps the Constitution and this question in particular, can still be revived. Indeed, as Blair guardedly commented on 2nd February this year, "I accept we will need to return to issues around the European Constitution... a European Union of 25 cannot function properly with today’s rules of governance." In which case, then, 2005 might have seen not only the final Presidency for Mr. Blair, but also for Britain.

Photo : Conseil de l’Union européenne

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