The fight against terrorism had been only one among a number of themes that were to be promoted by Britain. But the topic has now moved firmly to the top of the agenda.
The British government has already called an emergency meeting of EU justice and interior ministers today in Brussels.
Terrorism was also uppermost in the minds of the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, who quizzed British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Brussels yesterday.
Straw did not announce any new antiterrorism measures. This will be left to the justice and interior ministers, who will debate -- among other things -- whether EU telephone companies and Internet providers should be forced to retain e-mails and phone records for long periods of time.
Straw indicated that Britain favors a re-examination of civil liberties to facilitate the work of law enforcement agencies.
"[We need] a rebalancing of where the line between the rights of individuals and the rights of societies should lie, which is a matter on which I've sorted out my own mind," Straw said. "But I say with respect to some European parliamentarians, given what has now happened, I hope that we're able to reach agreement on that."
Straw also made a direct connection between the fight against terrorism and the need for continued EU engagement with countries such as Afghanistan, which serve or have served as breeding grounds for terrorists, many of them recruited from among the Muslim populations of European countries.
"How do we break the grip that is over some young people, who are basically brainwashed into believing that violent jihad -- eliminating others in a random way through terrorism -- is their route to heaven and is a good thing and not a bad thing? We have to do this. We have to do it with difficulty, is the answer," Straw said. "One of the reasons why we have to stay very closely engaged with Afghanistan and with Pakistan is precisely for this reason, because I think we'll find that a lot of those who are committing terrorist outrages around the world -- and have over the last few years -- were trained in Afghanistan, in some of the camps there being run by the Taliban."
Straw said he is particularly sensitive to Muslim issues, as his constituency in the northwest of England has a large Pakistani population and is home to about 30 mosques.
Aside from terrorism, many European deputies used the occasion to question Straw on the effects that the EU's constitutional crisis may have on enlargement. The constitution was rejected by voters in referendums in France and the Netherlands.
Britain is among the strongest supporters of enlarging the EU. Straw repeatedly stressed that the EU must follow through with commitments it has already made to accession states Bulgaria and Romania, as well as candidate countries Croatia and Turkey. He indicated that other western Balkan countries will also join the EU in the distant future.
Straw was particularly empathic on the subject of Turkey.
"It is of critical importance that Turkey joins the European Union," Straw said. "The world is not in a stable state. Turkey's future will either be to the West, or it will move to the East. I ask you, 'Which is better for our interests, as well as in Turkey's?' "
Straw said there must be no discrimination against Turkey's candidacy when its performance is assessed against the EU's so-called Copenhagen criteria of accession.
Entry talks with Turkey are scheduled to begin in October, but France, Austria, and the Netherlands, among others, are widely suspected of looking for ways to postpone the process.
Straw confirmed, however, that Britain is unwilling at this time to advocate further enlargement after the EU's current commitments have been honored.
"As to other aspirant countries, enlargement is a magnet. I think we all accept that the pace at which the European Union can be enlarged depends on its capability and capacity," Straw said. "We've got to have a period, not of reflection, but of digestion for the time being, because the enlargement that has just taken place -- and is likely to take place with Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, and Turkey -- is bigger than any single process of enlargement ever before."
Among the foreign-policy priorities of the British presidency, Straw listed a continued commitment to building a Palestinian state, nuclear talks with Iran, and delivering on EU promises made to Iraq.
Britain will also use its chairmanship of the EU to develop a long-term strategy for Africa, going beyond the decisions made by the G-8 summit last week.