Monday, June 20, 2005

Sitting Bull on the warpath

Although the broadcast media seem to have dropped "Europe" like a hot cake yesterday, having overdosed over the last week, today should see a brief squib as Blair reports back to the Commons on the abortive European Council. There should also be some fun on Thursday when he addresses the EU parliament in Brussels, setting out in detail his objectives of the UK presidency which starts on 1 July.

Since the Council, though, it has been rumoured that the "colleagues" will be seeking to by-pass Blair, leaving any substantive negotiations on the budget until early 2006, under the Austrian presidency.

This might be just as well, as Blair's performance at the European Council was redolent not so much of the British at Waterloo in 1815, to which many media sources have made reference, as the tactics of a certain general in a less glorious battle just over 60 years later – the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, more famously known as Custer's last stand.

Not least, according to The Sunday Telegraph, Blair "faces six months of Gallic revenge at EU helm", with Chirac plotting revenge and vowing to make things as tough as possible for the prime minister.

There is also the little matter of Jean-Claude Juncker, whom The Sunday Times tells us have been so upset by Blair's cavalier treatment of his presidency that he is not even prepared to go to Brussels to listen to the incoming president's speech, on the rather thin pretext that Thursday "is the national day of Luxembourg". Nor, indeed, is he prepared to give Blair any advice on how to handle the presidency as, he sniffs, "clearly my advice is not appreciated".

However, according to The Financial Times, the born-again European Mr Blair is not willing to take the back seat over the next six months and is apparently preparing to make a concerted effort to secure agreement on the long-term budget, with "a senior Downing Street figure" insisting the issue could not be left to the Austrian presidency.

A Downing Street "insider" – i.e., Blair's spokesman, giving an unattributed briefing - has said: "We will make a serious and concerted effort to do a deal under our presidency." It is understood, says the FT, that Britain wants to examine the possibility of agreeing an EU budget for 2007-2013 by December while leaving open the possibility for a fundamental review of the budget two or three years from now.

This is Blair the evangelist speaking – the man with a mission – his crusade affirmed by the Independent on Sunday, which says that he is gambling on appeal to the "People's Europe".

On the strength of reading the media reports over the week, and relying on his interpretation of the reasons for the "no" votes in the French and Dutch referendums, it seems Blair believes he can appeal to European opinion over the heads of Chirac, Schröder and other leaders of "old Europe". He actually thinks that the European public supports his ideas for "modernising" the EU, and intends to pursue his arguments during the presidency.

The crusade, we are told, will begin with the speech to the EU parliament, at which point, he may learn from a less than enthusiastic response that his ideas have all the buoyancy of a lead balloon. He may be faced with "colleagues" dreaming of the US 7th Cavalry, thinking of themselves as Sioux and Cheyenne Indians under the leadership of Sitting Bull.

Already the warning signs are there, with Sitting Bull's chief squaw, Catherine Colonna, France's Europe minister, issuing a "veiled warning" to Blair not to take advantage of the divisions to foist his own agenda on the EU. Reflecting her boss's pique, Colonna has blamed the Council failure on the inability of some countries to let the "collective spirit prevail". "Certain countries held on to their national egos," she says. "Certain countries, notably Great Britain" – in case you hadn't guessed.

With Sitting Bull on the warpath, General Blair had better make sure he does not venture too far out on a limb, or he could find history repeating itself.

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