Thursday, June 23, 2005

A tale of two presidents

Yesterday in the EU parliament in Brussels, it was the the turn of Jean-Claude Juncker, in his capacity as outgoing president of the EU, to give his view of the "state of the union! address, summarising the achievements of his presidency. Today, it is Blair's turn, in his capacity as incoming president, to set out his objectives for the new presidency.

For Juncker, who might otherwise have given an anodyne speech, it was a tense occasion, filled with rancour and recriminations. But it was also a speech – from a man that still does not believe "we" lost the French and Dutch referendums – where he demonstrated that he simply has not the first idea of what democracy is about. Referring to those two referendums, he told the assembled MEPs, "The current generation does not have the right to unpick what previous generations have created."

The main rancour, however, was reserved for Blair, with Juncker accusing the British prime minister of not being prepared to make the slightest concessions at the Council to permit a compromise on future funding. The disagreement, Juncker declared, "has meant that after the uncertainty regarding the constitution there's a deep crisis, one not exclusively budgetary or financial in nature."

Some hint of what Blair will say cames from his chancellor, Gordon Brown, who gave his traditional annual address at the Mansion House in the City yesterday evening. Not making any concessions to the sensibilities of the Continentals, he waded in with a trenchant speech telling the "colleagues" that they must rethink the assumptions underpinning the EU, to face up to the challenges of global competition.

Treading on toes with great abandon, he then told them that, "…if the old assumptions about federalism do not match the realities of our time, now more than ever we need a pro-European realism that starts from the founding case for the European Union." That should go down well.., like a lead balloon.

To rub salt into the wounds, Brown added that the "no" votes from the French and Dutch had finally overturned the belief that a "European identity could supersede national identities". "The referendum results suggest identities have remained rooted in the nation state - and that familiar national, cultural and political attachments are important," he said.

Predictably, the chancellor also homed in on the agriculture payments, making it clear that Britain was not planning to back down in the row over the EU rebate.

And therein lies the grief for Blair today. Barroso, alongside Juncker yesterday, made it equally clear that the commission would oppose changing the 2002 agriculture agreement. "It is not reasonable to embark on a global revision of the common agricultural policy," he said, "because only very recently an agreement was reached."

Echoing Chirac's line at the Council, he then went on to say that agreements needed to be respected. "To start questioning an agreement that was only reached three years ago is not our way of going about things," he declared. So, Mr Blair, it seems, does not even have the right to unpick agreements made even a few years ago. Beating his head against a brick wall might be more profitable - and more entertaining.

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