Blair's European failure

Geoffrey Van Orden, lead Conservative Euro MP for the East of England, argues that Tony Blair's stewardship of the European Union in the past six months has been a catalogue of failure.

By Graham Dines

Geoffrey Van Orden, lead Conservative Euro MP for the East of England, argues that Tony Blair's stewardship of the European Union in the past six months has been a catalogue of failure.

“GIVE me a break!” groaned a tormented Mr Blair when, at the conclusion of a fierce round of criticism of his EU Presidency in the European Parliament two weeks ago, I put it to him that he hadn't even done much for Africa, his flagship policy area.

This was Mr Blair's year at the helm of international politics. Throughout 2005 he had chaired the G8 Group of the world's leading nations. In the second half of 2005 he held the presidency of the European Union.

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What judgement should we make? I think we should ask whether we feel safer, more secure than a year ago? Are we better off? Have we helped those less fortunate than ourselves? Have we helped set the EU on a better course? Is Britain's stock in the world higher or lower?

In May, voters in France and the Netherlands defeated the European Constitution. This was an outcome for which many of us had campaigned. It provided an enormous opportunity to consider the nature and direction of an organisation created 50 years ago under very different circumstances to today.

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The EU is now seen by many of us to be remote, bureaucratic, wasteful, and a brake on economic progress. How could its budget become an economic accelerator instead of a brake? This should have been the theme of Mr Blair's Presidency. If other leaders had challenged him on this, at least he would have been able to justify himself to the British people.

Mr Blair should be given some credit in opening membership negotiations with Turkey and Croatia. To my mind, the EU's one success has been enlargement. To join the club, backward countries, many of which had been under communist rule for a half-century, have had to change their ways. This is extending the area of stability, democracy and increasing prosperity to the far flanks of Europe. It will also be an increasingly important factor in changing the EU itself.

Britain must expect to pay her fair share towards helping the more backward countries. But we should certainly not be paying for countries like France, which has a similar sized economy to our own.

It is scandalous that, for the past 20 years, in net terms, Britain has paid double the contribution of France to the EU, even with Mrs Thatcher's rebate.

Mr Blair has now agreed to surrender over £7 billion of this rebate over the coming years. We shall continue to pay significantly more than France. And we have got absolutely nothing of substance in return.

At the EU Summit in December, Mr Blair should have packed his bags and come home instead of caving in. He would have got more respect both here and abroad. Instead he has even managed to alienate the very countries in central Europe that should be Britain's strongest allies in changing the nature of the EU.

The outcome of the budget negotiations has been a political and financial disaster for Britain. There has been no reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which will continue to consume 43% of the budget while impacting negatively on other policies.

Back to Africa. Do you remember how Mr Blair's G8 Summit in Gleneagles last July was focused on assisting that continent? Well the barriers to trade have not been removed. 18 countries promised debt relief have not seen a penny.

It will be another seven years before our share of GDP for aid reaches the levels of 30 years ago.

Certainly, the Global Fund for Aids, TB and malaria has had an enormous boost - that's a plus point. But the hope of any real improvement in the lives of millions in Africa is blocked by corrupt and dictatorial regimes. Mugabe's tyranny is more deeply entrenched than it was a year ago; two of the poorest countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea are practically at war again; Uganda is terrorised by the so-called Lord's Resistance Army; Gaddafi's regime sentences innocent Bulgarian nurses to death - and so it goes on.

Without good governance there can be no real progress - that applies not just to Africa.

We have all been badly let down over the past year, when so much could have been achieved. For Mr Blair it is 3 marks out of 10. The EU should have had an enormous shake-up. Instead it plunges on in the wrong direction.

Geoffrey Van Orden has been a Euro MP since 1999. He can be contacted at 88 Rectory Lane, Chelmsford, CM1 1RF or email:

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