UK presidency a success? What a joke!

>By Andrew Duff MEPAT the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, Austria takes over from the United Kingdom as president of the Council of the European Union.


By Andrew Duff MEP

AT the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, Austria takes over from the United Kingdom as president of the Council of the European Union. We can all breathe a large sigh of relief. Things did not go entirely as planned. This was supposed to be the presidency that prepared the British people to say yes to the EU constitution.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has scarcely fought to play a leading role in a stronger EU. Last week in Brussels, I heard Tony Blair dish Tory and UKIP 'reactionaries' as well as take a swipe at the 'commentators' among Labour and Liberal Democrat ranks who, he says, are happy to criticise him but fail to advance positive European policies of their own. Impressive stuff.

As far as the UK presidency is concerned, Mr Blair's deeds are less eloquent than his rhetoric. His overriding theme has been the need for Europe to face up to the challenges of globalisation. Sure enough, he did succeed in opening membership negotiations with Turkey. Although nobody imagines that the Turkish accession process is without risk, failure to have taken that positive step would have shown bad faith with the Muslim world. Europe's security will not be enhanced by refusing to project its own prosperity and democracy eastwards.

The UK managed to steer home legislation on the controversial REACH directive which will regulate the use of chemicals across Europe. Parliament was also persuaded to agree to the Data Retention Directive, a key part of the Union's counter terrorism package. (For the record, I voted for a stronger REACH and a more liberal data retention measure than were eventually agreed.)

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The biggest risk was taken by Tony Blair in tackling negotiations over the EU's medium-term spending. Starting from an unrealistically low bid, the UK agreed eventually to cap future spending commitments at 1.045% of EU gross national income for the period 2007-13 - or about €123 bn per year. This is hardly enough, as Mr Blair himself admitted last week. The EU will spend less than is needed on rural development, R&D or culture. Its budget for foreign affairs will be strictly limited.

Funding for regional and social development will be restricted mostly to the new member states from Central Europe. To get things in proportion, the annual budgets of the EU and of Austria are roughly the same size. There are eight million Austrians and 455 million EU citizens. Judged in terms of spending power, at least, the EU is clearly no superstate.

The big argument, of course, concerned the UK rebate. In the end, the UK agreed to pay another € 10.5 bn. Given that the size of the rebate is set to grow from € 6bn this year to nearly €8bn in 2013 if nothing had been done, the UK can well afford to be this generous. The British net contribution to the EU will rise over the period by 63 per cent; France's by 116%t. It is a decent deal, strangely arrived at.

Andrew Duff is the Liberal Democrat MEP for the East of England. .

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