EU mocks Britain's presidential boasts

Blair's list of `achievements' fell on amused ears abroad, reports Katherine Butler
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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR raised eyebrows in Brussels yesterday by publishing a list of 45 "achievements" to underpin a confident claim that, halfway through its six-month presidency of the EU, Britain is "returning Europe to the people".

The scoresheet, which Downing Street's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, took time personally to promote, included the following triumphs: David Blunkett chaired a meeting about life-long learning in London; Margaret Beckett stressed the importance of modern companies during a debate in the European Parliament; "good progress" on ways of improving life for animals in zoos was noted; and the need for measures to lower telephone bills was "highlighted".

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook (praised in Mr Blair's statement as "brilliant") interrupted a press conference on EU expansion in Brussels yesterday to record his personal victories over the past three months. These included a "quick response" to massacres in Algeria, and "injecting new impetus" into the Middle East peace process with his recent visit.

The public relations exercise, pointing up that a happy relationship with Europe can make British people (and zoo animals) happy, too, was clearly aimed at a sceptical domestic audience - and that is where it ought to have stayed, some in Brussels thought.

"It's funny, we always thought the British style was understated," quipped a German diplomat. Another EU official said: "This is spinology of the highest order. It's obvious they need to flog this stuff at home. It is all about turning around British public opinion."

For some, laying claim to so many "British achievements" - particularly given Mr Blair's decision to keep the UK out of the EU project which will have the biggest impact of all on ordinary people - monetary union - was a bit rich. "The British are good housekeepers. But you could not call their presidency ambitious. In fact, nothing is happening," said a Dutch source. "They are working their way through the agenda, but let's not exaggerate".

All governments like to present their stint in the EU chair as a success, but there was a strong feeling in Brussels yesterday that putting out dubious "production figures" is an irritant which takes away from Britain's genuine achievements.

Many of the 45 successes attributed to Britain have come along on the EU's decision-making conveyor belt and would have happened anyway. The cheekiest claim has to be that landmark reports on who qualifies for the single currency, published last week by the European Commission, were related to the British presidency.

Yet, most in EU circles are happy to admit that both Gordon Brown and Mr Cook, who are chairing most of the key meetings, are skilled chairmen who operate with the right mix of humour and patience. Mr Cook, in particular, has won friends by displaying what the French minister Hubert Vedrine calls his "drole spirit".

Others, in particular the Dutch, are less happy with Britain's go-it- alone strategy - for example, during the Iraq crisis - but nevertheless appreciate Mr Cook's style. Jack Cunningham, the agriculture minister, has also secured the first lifting of the British beef ban, thanks to an approach in which he worked hand-in-hand with the Brussels Commission.

But Britain's relationship with Europe remains uneasy. With one eye on Rupert Murdoch and the votes of Sun readers, Mr Blair remains on the fence over the single currency. And lecturing his EU peers about radical economic reform will carry less and less authority if Britain is not in the inside lane once the big Euro decisions are finalised in four weeks' time.

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