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British EU Presidency Tenure Fails to Impress

Bernd Riegert (sms)
December 27, 2005

As Britain's six-month rotation as European Union president draws to a close, observers look back on the past half year, which was marked by a series of attempts to reform the EU. In the end, little was achieved.

Blair left the presidency without achieving many of the goals he setImage: AP

Shortly after British Prime Minister Tony Blair blocked the first EU budget proposal this summer, he jumped into the EU presidency's driver's seat and promised a series of deep-seated changes to the union.

In an impassioned speech in front of the European Parliament, Blair promised to get started right away with fundamental EU reforms and a debate about where the union should head.

"The most important thing is to show the people where we are headed," he said. "What frustrates me a little is that we create commissions that give us answers, but then nothing happens."

Ironically, Britain's critics accuse it of just that: failing to draw conclusions to recognized problems.

Terror laws, development aid, expansion success

London Terroranschläge auf U-Bahn und Bussystem in London zerstörter Bus
Part of the EU's policy was dictated by the July terror attacks in LondonImage: AP

But Blair did manage to cross some things off his list.

After July's bombing attacks in London, the British presidency got started by focusing on combating terrorism. Blair headed up initiatives to improve international coordination in the fight against terror with laws to save telephone and Internet logs to help in investigations.

Then the British presidency succeeded in convincing the EU to double its developmental aid to Africa to 0.7 percent of the gross national product by 2015. Blair also got to chalk up the planned opening of expansion talks with Turkey and Croatia as a success of his time at the head of EU.

"We had a success, not a disaster, because we opened negotiations with Turkey," he said of the talks scheduled for Oct. 4. "That was the goal we set ourselves."

It was a goal Blair achieved after a slow and winding process that concluded with a harried 24-hour marathon meeting to break down opposition from Cyprus and Austria. Despite voting for the beginning of negotiations, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik insisted that opening talks was no guarantee for actual accession, leaving the question of whether historians will accuse Blair of celebrating too early unanswered.

"At the end of a very long negotiations process it could come to accession," said Plassnik, whose country will assume the EU presidency in January. "But it does not have to."

Constitution leads to European crisis

EU Verfassung Volksabstimmung in Frankreich Plakat
The EU practically stopped for the summer after the constitution was rejectedImage: AP

Wrangling with crisis after the French and Dutch both rejected the European Constitution in late summer, the British presidency wanted simply to ignore autumn's traditional meeting of EU heads of state. In the end though, Blair invited his colleagues to Hampton Court outside of London to discuss Europe's social model, circumventing discussion of the EU Constitution and causing European diplomats and parliamentarians to accuse London of twiddling its thumbs.

Rather than submitting a reformed draft of the 2007-2013 budget, Britain shocked the European Commission and member states alike with a barebones proposal to the detriment of the bloc's poorer new member states.

Although normally Blair's friend, EU Commission President Jose Barroso uttered a curt phrase in response: "It is simply not enough."

Budget deal ends presidency on a high note

Worse still, to many European observers, the British proposal left intact its own cherished budget rebate, making the chances of reaching an agreement shrink with every passing minute.

"They complain about a situation… they themselves brought about," said Martin Schulz, head of the European Parliament's Social Democrats.

Angela Merkel, EU-Gipfel in Brüssel
Merkel's cool-headedness, and cash, is credited with negotiation of a budget agreementImage: dpa

It was not until German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at her first EU finance meeting, negotiated a compromise in a grueling late-night session that Britain said it was prepared to give back part of the contentious rebate -- but only after France agreed to allow evaluation of the EU agriculture policy it benefits from.

While some called it a compromise of the lowest common denominator, Tony Blair insisted he was pleased with the deal.

"It is clear to me that the budget we agreed to in the early hours of Saturday is not the right budget for the future of Europe," he said. "But for the meantime, until we achieve larger reforms, we will give the new member states control over their financial perspectives."

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