London, 18 December 1997 (RFE/RL) - The next six months will give Britain its fourth tenure of the rotating presidency of the European Union, with responsibility for chairing the start of enlargement negotiations with the Central and East European countries.
Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair is sure to try to boost his pro-EU credentials and present himself as more sympathetic to the ideal of European integration than his predecessors.
Critics say Britain has performed ineffectually on the last three occasions when it held the EU presidency -- under prime ministers James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major -- because of skepticism about the goals of full political and economic union.
In 1986, Thatcher fell out publicly with EU Executive Commission President Jacques Delors. In 1992, Major suffered the humiliation of ejection from the EU's Exchange Rate Mechanism and severe criticism from his own party of the Maastricht Treaty.
Blair, whose Labor Party was elected on a pro-European platform, is determined to do better. He says he will use the six-month presidency, beginning January 1, to play a new and constructive role in Europe. But it is doubtful he can overcome the resentment that previous British governments have provoked among their EU partners.
Two main issues will dominate the British presidency: talks on the launch of the single currency, the euro, and the beginning of negotiations on the EU's expansion..
Britain will chair the Brussels meeting in May that will decide which countries will join the euro zone --even though the Blair government itself will opt out of the first wave. Eleven of the 15 EU nations are expected to join the euro initially, with Sweden and Denmark joining Britain in opting out, and Greece deemed ineligible on economic grounds. Britain's opt-out underlines its difficult position as EU president.
The second issue -- EU enlargement -- is less of a problem because Britain is a strong supporter of the principle of an expanded union to include the 10 Central and East European candidate nations. On visits to Budapest, Prague and Warsaw last month, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook expressed strong backing for an enlarged EU to include all candidate members, although he said that they must first meet the strict criteria for membership. He also said that the EU must ensure that the Iron Curtain is not replaced with a "Velvet Curtain" dividing rich and poor nations.
Critics say that Britain's support for an enlarged EU is primarily dictated by a desire to weaken the group's internal integration process. They say its backing for a Europe of 21 or 26 countries is mainly aimed at diluting moves toward political and economic union.
Whatever its motive, Britain will try to give what Cook called a "flying start to a matter of the greatest historical importance." The key conference on enlargement will take place in London in late February with all 11 applicant countries present. In theory, all are given a chance for admission, although in reality only the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus will be included in the first wave of accession negotiations.
The other applicants, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia will have to wait in the queue. The first four are demed not sufficiently advanced economically, while Slovakia is excluded because of its poor democratic and human-rights record. The EU is trying to mollify all 11 applicants with $880 million in aid over the next nine years. But the poorer EU countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, say this money must not come from their own subsidies supplied from the EU's structural and cohesion funds.
Britain's presidency of the EU will also be dominated by a debate on how to reform the EU's budget and institutions, which should take place before its expansion begins. The most thorny problem is the Common Agricultural Policy, which eats up almost half the EU's total budget each year but supports only a tiny fraction of its population.
Will Britain's presidency much affect the nature and course of the EU? Columnist Martin Walker of the "Guardian" newspaper says not. He says the major European questions are likely to be decided by Germany. Still, given successive British governments' intransigence on Europe, it is important that the Blair government is seen not to fail.