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Europe: Britain Assessed After Six-Month Presidency Of EU

  • Ben Partridge



London, 29 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Britain hands over the presidency of the EU to Austria tomorrow after six months in which it kicked off the enlargement process and launched the single currency but failed to pursue a distinctive European foreign policy.

One analysis (Financial Times) says the judgment of Brussels is that the British government did a solid, if uninspiring, job. It moved the EU closer to the goal of an enlarged union to include the Central/East Europeans, and established the founding members of the single currency to be launched next year. But, in the end, Britain fell "victim to its own inflated rhetoric about leadership in Europe."

The main charge leveled against British Prime Minister Tony Blair is that he made no secret of his preference for Washington over Brussels, and that he put his close relationship with President Bill Clinton ahead of links with the EU's national leaders.

The most serious strains came during the crisis over UN weapons inspections in Iraq when Blair appeared to put his allegiance to the US first, and the presidency of the EU second. His failure to consult his EU partners in the near-war crisis was branded a serious failure.

One analyst says the Iraq crisis showed Britain still likes to posture as a 'great power' with a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. But this irritates smaller nations like the Netherlands and Belgium who yearn for a genuine common European foreign policy.

Critics faulted Foreign Secretary Robin Cook for failing to speak up effectively for Europe on a range of issues: the Kosovo crisis, the row between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus, and the Middle East.

Britain was also blamed for ignoring the smaller EU countries in brokering a solution to the bitter Franco-German dispute over the European Central bank head. (The Austrians said Britain had given an object lesson in "how not to run an EU summit.")

Still, the British presidency will be remembered most for the EU decision to embark on accession talks with Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Estonia (plus Cyprus). The goal of is to bring the Central/.East Europeans into the EU early next century. But the timetable is in doubt because the German refusal to pick up the bill has fueled the arguments about how to fund enlargement. (A second tier of applicant countries, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania, will have to wait in the EU queue.)

Britain, a consistent support of an expanded union, argued during its presidency that the EU has to streamline its administrative and policy-making before enlargement can go ahead. It also called for a fundamental reform of the EU's wasteful support for farmers, a priority because Poland alone has almost as many farmers as the rest of the EU combined.

The second litmus test of Britain's EU presidency is likely to be the decision to go ahead with monetary union, to be launched on January 1, next year, with 11 EU countries participating. Britain, Denmark and Sweden will stay out of the Euro "club" initially on political grounds. Greece failed to qualify on economic grounds.

Britain is credited with steering the EMU negotiations effectively despite its decision to exclude itself initially from the Euro-zone.

Many economists feel it will not be long before Britain agrees to embrace the Euro, pointing to the fact that London -- the most important financial center in Europe -- fears a loss of influence. Blair has warmed to the single currency in recent days, calling it a pole of stability at a time of uncertainty in Asia and Russia. But has there been any real change to Britain's often-reluctant approach to closer European integration? Analysts say the Labor administration have been much less hostile to a united Europe than the Conservatives of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and, despite ongoing charges of British arrogance and insensitivity, have tried to portray themselves as "good Europeans."
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