Friday, November 19, 2004

At the (part time) heart of Europe

According to The Times this morning, British cabinet ministers are part timers in the councils of the European Union, clocking up the worst attendance records of the biggest member states.

Despite Blair’s pledge to put Britain "at the heart of Europe", Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, Blunkett and Margaret Beckett have all attended fewer EU council meetings than their French and German counterparts over the past three years.

Brown’s attendance at the finance council has been declining steadily since 2002 despite the regular lectures he delivers to Brussels on how to improve the EU’s economic performance. He has attended only 19 of the 29 finance ministers’ meetings since 2002. Often he sends a junior minister.

The Times cites an EU official saying, "Brown doesn’t really get on with any of the other ministers, and often doesn’t bother showing up. We’ve always no idea whether he is coming."

And it turns out that when Brown, last Monday, announced that he was going to a finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels to demand that British businesses get a fair share of the European government contract market, the issue was not on the agenda, and Mr Brown did not give a copy of his report to either the Commission or any other EU country.

As is so often the case, it seems that our own ministers regard council meetings more as an opportunity for grandstanding on a domestic stage, rather than a forum for doing business, but Blunkett, it seems, does even care about that. His is the worst attendance record, he having turned up to only four of 19 formal interior ministers’ meetings since 2002. He has attended none last year.

His French counterpart has attended twice as often, while Otto Schily, the German Interior Minister, attended all 19 meetings. The Home Office is normally represented in Europe by the junior minister Caroline Flint. "Blunkett just doesn’t do Europe," one EU official said. Straw is better, but not much, having attended only 33 of the last 50 foreign ministers’ meetings, compared with 39 for France and 35 for Germany.

Predictably, a government spokesman defended the ministers’ records, saying: "We attend every EU meeting at the appropriate level depending on the issues under discussion and whether decisions need to be taken. We have a strong voice in Europe."

I guess you need one if you are the wrong side of the Channel

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