Britain began its six-month presidency of the European Union Friday with Prime Minister Tony Blair pledging to hold an informal summit later this year to debate the future of the crisis-torn bloc.
"This is an interesting moment to take on the EU presidency"
Blair also promised to work hard to negotiate a deal on the thorny issue of financing and farm subsidies, during what will likely be a rocky half year at the helm of the restless 25-nation group.
Barrosso and Blair
"The one thing everybody in Europe will agree on is that this is an interesting moment to take on the presidency of the European Union," Blair told a joint news conference with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.
"The general task is to try to initiate, in a cooperative and inclusive way, a debate about the future direction of Europe," he said, in remarks that saw him try to take the heat out of the disputes that are plaguing the bloc.
A mid-way summit to discuss the future
Blair, who earlier held talks with Barroso and other commissioners, said Britain would host a summit of EU leaders mid-way through its presidency, which would also explore social reforms.
"We have agreed that it would be sensible for the presidency to hold an informal summit in the autumn at which the leaders of Europe would come together and discuss how Europe makes progress in the future, how we give the energy and commitment to the European project," Blair said.
France categorically rejected the constitution
He said the European Commission would draw up a paper on Europe's social model and how it functions in a world of globalization and that leaders would discuss it during the pause for reflection announced after French and Dutch voters rejected the EU's constitution.
But he categorically ruled out trying to change the treaty or better chart the troubled club's future. "I can't make progress on that in these six months," he said.
Economic reform top priority
In a working document for the next six months, London put economic reform at the top of its agenda, including reexamining the divisive issue of farm subsidies, which has propelled Britain into a major battle with France.
Blair hopes to secure a deal on the 2007-2013 budget, but it remains unclear whether France in particular will be accommodating, given London's steadfast refusal to part with its widely-detested but jealously-guarded budget rebate without an overhaul of the union's long-term financing system.
"We will do our best to make progress and to reach an agreement; whether it is possible or not I really don't know and neither does anyone at this stage," he told reporters.
EU leaders during crisis talks over the bloc's finances earlier in June
"It is important, obviously, that we try to reach an agreement, particularly after what happened at the previous summit of the European Union," he said, referring to a conclave two weeks ago that ended in failure, throwing the bloc into further strife after it ran into a crisis over its planned constitution.
Again trying to reach out to his partners, Blair said: "I think there is less of a disagreement than people really make out."
For his part, Barosso said he believed London's presidency would be a "success" and threw his support behind Blair's agenda for reform to make Europe more competitive with emerging giants such as China and India.
"It's a rough period for European politics and that is why this British presidency has a really very important responsibility."
Turkey and security issues
Turning to other priorities in the coming months, Blair highlighted future EU enlargement as well as stronger cooperation between member states on security issues such as terrorism, organised crime and illegal immigration.
Britain has given its backing to Turkish EU membership once accession talks, which begin on October 3 but are expected to last many years, are completed.