Nul points for Blair’s EU presidency

Why the British PM failed to make political capital from his time at the EU helm.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics Politics

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An EU presidency is a distorting looking-glass for any European leader to hold up to himself or herself. On the practical level the work programme for the six-month rotating EU chairmanship is set years in advance. Political outcomes are dislocated from the intentions or hopes of individual politicians, as resolutions are mediated between dozens of players and hundreds of officials. Leaders might propose but the EU disposes.

Blair started his six-month stint at a bad time: as the EU reeled from constitution rejections in France and as Britain engaged in traditional broadsides with France over Brussels expenditure for 2007 to 2013. Confounding expectations, Blair ended his presidency both with a deal on EU spending and with consensus that the UK’s reform agenda should lead the ‘future of Europe’ debate about the constitution. But somehow Blair, who usually enjoys the international limelight, has been able to make little political capital out of his term at Europe’s helm.

The reason lies in the fundamental character of the EU itself. The EU is about process: decisions trickle from layers and networks of committees. Votes are almost never taken. Outcomes are highly qualified, technical and based on compromise between 25 bureaucracies. Other decisions are deferred five or 10 years down the line and are as yet vague outlines still to be fleshed out by national diplomats and EU officials.

The British presidency’s high point, the Blair-brokered agreement on EU financing for 2007 to 2013, is a case in point. In terms of EU process the agreement was an impressive coup. In terms of public opinion, in Europe and the UK, the negotiations were shabby and showed the limit of the EU’s vision.

Bitter rows zeroed in on numbers representing minute fractions – to the 0.01 percentage point – of Europe’s gross national income (GNI). All this was the sign of the EU’s political poverty. French and Dutch voters unimpressed with the EU last summer are unlikely to be won back in the winter by the haggling and nitpicking that marked the agreement, now heralded as proof Europe is working in 2006.

As World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks stalled in Hong Kong, and EU agriculture subsidies appeared on the global stage as the villain of the developing world, Europe’s leaders in Brussels buried their heads in the sand. UK wording setting terms for a mid-term EU budget review in 2008 to 2009 was diluted to remove reference to ‘adjustments’, effectively rendering commitment to European spending reform rhetorical for the indefinite future. Pragmatic perhaps, but the decision seems more like political cowardice when it is considered that 2008, or thereabouts, will also be decision time for the EU constitution. If Europe’s leaders are unable to set a date for changes to spending involving a few hundredths of a GNI percentage point, what destiny for wide-ranging debate on the future of Europe? Not EU crisis averted but EU crisis deferred.

Agreement on the UK’s annual rebate is even shadier. In appearance, London will give up €1.5billion a year from Britain’s annual rebate, handbagged by Margaret Thatcher in 1984 after a traditional Anglo-French spat over farm cash and currently running at around €5billion a year. The detail of agreed proposals paints a rather different picture, with a ‘progressive percentage reduction’ in the rebate only biting in full in 2011, back-loading the bulk of the €10.5billion concession over three years – not the seven claimed by Blair. Moreover, after 2013 the change is explicitly fixed and the UK will fully contribute to enlargement costs, receiving a rebate only on spending in the EU15 and farm expenditure in the EU25. The actual price for Britain in 2014 will be an extra annual EU bill for at least €3.5billion.

The price of Blair’s rebate deal will probably be left to his successor, who is likely to be the UK’s more eurosceptic and penny-pinching finance minister Gordon Brown. This is a difficult story to spin. Blair is domestically unwilling to hold the line for paying more to the EU, and is evasive on the detail. Only one audience appreciates Blair’s work: the narrow caste of officialdom and bureaucracy that fetishises consensus, compromise and realism at the expense of political vision or argument.

As French and Dutch referendums on the EU constitution showed, the EU has no political appeal. Britain’s EU presidency has been no exception, and while Blair notched up successes, any euro-allure is too limited for him to reap any wider public gain.

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Topics Politics


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