Blair Takes Turn as EU's President

Britain's Tony Blair takes over the European Union's rotating presidency, during what has been a difficult time for the organization. The EU is still reeling from the rejection of the proposed constitution by Dutch and French voters; it's sending mixed signals about allowing more states to join the EU; and European leaders are in discord over the EU's spending priorities.

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Britain took over the rotating presidency of the European Union today. Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to use the position to initiate economic reforms, but many Europeans are skeptical of his plans. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from London.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

As the EU has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent months, apprehension about Britain's EU presidency has grown. His European critics fear that Blair will seek to cut social benefits and the treat the EU as little more than a trading block while shunning political integration. Blair's remarks last week to the European parliament took them by surprise.

(Soundbite of speech)

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): I believe in Europe as a political project. I believe in Europe with a strong and caring social dimension. I would never accept a Europe that was simply an economic market.

(Soundbite of applause)

KUHN: Blair and his heir apparent, Finance Minister Gordon Brown, had been far more Euro-skeptic in previous comments. As EU president, Blair wants to free up the flow of goods and services within Europe, increase employment through more flexible labor policies and cut the agricultural subsidies that make up 40 percent of the EU budget. But up to a fifth of those subsidies go to French farmers, and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said yesterday that the subsidies were not negotiable.

Prime Minister DOMINIQUE de VILLEPIN (France): We are, of course, ready to think and discuss about everything, but not to negotiate on this issue during this period.

KUHN: Blair says he wants to use the subsidy money to invest in education and research.

Prime Min. BLAIR: The purpose of our social model should be to enhance our ability to compete, to help our people cope with globalization, to let them embrace its opportunities and avoid the dangers.

KUHN: But there's little appetite for liberalization in France, Germany and Italy even though economic growth there is sluggish and unemployment is high. Fear of losing the so-called European social model of welfare benefits was a factor in the recent rejections of the French and Dutch of a new EU constitution.

Another factor was a question of whether to allow Turkey to join the EU. Britain will handle this politically thorny task when talks begin in October. Many Europeans fear that accession would open the door to more Muslim immigrants and more ethnic tensions. But Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said his country remained determined to bring Turkey on board.

Mr. JACK STRAW (British Foreign Secretary): European Union and Turkey alike stand to gain greatly from a democratic and prosperous Turkey anchored in Europe, a demonstration that Islam is compatible with the values of liberal democracy, which form the bedrock of the European Union.

KUHN: With all these disagreements, Britain will have difficulty accomplishing much in a six-month period that starts with Europe's long summer break and ends with the Christmas holidays. Besides, many of the labor and budgetary policies that Blair wants to reform are up to national governments, not the EU. Richard Whitman of the Royal Institute of International Affairs says that recent events have forced Blair to strike a conciliatory note towards Brussels.

Mr. RICHARD WHITMAN (Royal Institute of International Affairs): What's happened to the British government over the last month or so is that the agenda that it had for its EU presidency has been blown out of the water and it's been blown out of the water by the no votes in France and the Netherlands and it's been blown out of the water by the dispute on the EU's future budget, which the UK is a problem rather than part of the solution.

KUHN: Britain was widely blamed two weeks ago for rejecting a budget deal and insisting on a rebate on its contribution to the EU. It remains to be seen what the cost of failure to achieve his ambitious EU aims would be to Blair. He's in his final term in office and his successor may well take a very different approach to Europe. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, London.

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