Leading Article: Six months of the best - and worst - of President Blair

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The Independent Culture
SIX MONTHS is not long in the history of Europe, and it was never likely that Tony Blair would achieve in that short time the kind of shift in Europe's destiny that future historians would notice. That did not stop him making grandiose claims before "his" presidency started, in a typically Blairist photo-opportunity at the Eurostar terminus at Waterloo station. The Prime Minister's speech there was poised ambiguously between grand-sweepery and pledge-cardery.

On the one hand, he said, the presidency was a test, for Britain to "offer strong leadership" and for Europe to "embrace the need for change and reform" - a patronising formula with plenty of potential to offend. On the other, he ran through a six-point checklist for people to cut out and keep to make sure that he fulfilled his promises. Like the promises on Labour's election pledge card, they were carefully and modestly phrased in order to guarantee that they could be ticked off today.

First, he promised that he would "build support" for the third way in economics. Well, his declaration that "there is no left and right in economic management today, only good and bad", was received in stony silence by Socialist deputies in the French National Assembly, but they were so impressed by being addressed in French that it didn't matter. Pledge delivered.

Then he was going to "work constructively with our partners" to launch the Euro successfully. It was launched all right, without Britain, but in the talks over the appointment of Europe's first central banker Mr Blair managed to annoy at least half his fellow leaders, who were left to amuse themselves from lunch-time to midnight. Half a tick, then.

Pledge three was to start enlargement negotiations. In the diary already, but never mind. Done. Pledge four: "Common action on crime, drugs and the environment." Outcome: many meetings held, little real progress. Pledge five: "Build a stronger common foreign and security policy." Specifically, Mr Blair condemned the European Union's failure in the past to "face up collectively to external threats such as those posed by Saddam Hussein and ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia". But then, barely a month into the presidency, Mr Blair flew to Washington as the United States sought support for putting the frighteners on Saddam. Mr Blair barely mentioned his role as EU co-ordinator, seeming instead to revel in Britain's isolation as the US's staunchest ally. Meanwhile, throughout the last six months, the threat of Serbian repression in Kosovo was known and growing. Mr Blair has done the right thing now, but how much better it would have been to have acted earlier - and how much more in keeping with the pre- presidency rhetoric.

Finally, the Prime Minister at Waterloo in December set out his overriding promise: "I want to involve the British people in our presidency." That pledge is, six months later, sadly unfulfilled. We report today the Labour Party's own assessment of public opinion. Attitudes to the single currency may have softened slightly since the Tory civil war has come off the front pages, but otherwise the public are doubtful about the EU and are becoming more so.

As Mr Blair declared at Waterloo: "We can only make Europe work for the people of Europe if, in turn, the people of Europe feel that they have a stake in what Europe does." Judged by this measure, the Prime Minister's term in the chair was a damp squib.

His proposals unveiled today for reforming the EU's institutions - an "upper house" for the European Parliament and a standing committee of ministers - are a start. But they do not begin to measure up to the crisis of democratic legitimacy which afflicts the EU and which will be made worse by the expansion of the EU from 15 to 25 countries.

It is not just the internal machinery of the EU that needs to be overhauled, however, but the democratic machinery of member states holding the EU to account. It will be up to other countries now to drive that overhaul through.