Jury out on Blair's European progress

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The Independent Online
SO HOW was it for you, Mr President? As Tony Blair's six-month tenure as President of the European Council of Ministers draws to an end with a summit in Cardiff beginning today, views on how it went are mixed.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said last week a successful summit would mark a successful presidency, but some commentators suggested wryly that what had been a dodgy presidency might be followed by an uncomfortable summit.

As the meeting opens today, Mr Blair will claim there have been real achievements in the past six months in target areas such as the environment and arms control. The presidency has launched the single currency, extended the single market and worked on development of a more flexible labour market, his camp claims.

But what do the people really think? Was it good for them, too? A trawl of opinion-formers, pressure groups and MEPs by The Independent evinced a resounding "maybe".

In the "no" camp, not surprisingly, was the leader of the Conservative group of MEPs, Edward McMillan-Scott.

Informed opinion was unimpressed by Britain's performance, he said. "The European Parliament is not an enthusiastic supporter of the British presidency. The spin-doctoring and the presentation of a mid-term achievement programme were laughed at."

Some Labour members were equally unenthusiastic, and even the more loyal among the group admitted that there was "jealousy" among MEPs from other European countries.

Ken Coates, who was recently expelled from the European Parliamentary Labour Party, was not complimentary. "I suppose they've been on their best behaviour in the presidency. The thought of what they would have done if they'd been on their worst behaviour is enough to make me come out in a rash," he said.

Wayne David, the leader of the Labour group, was happier. Britain had made progress on jobs, on the single market, on the Euro and on enlargement as well as on the development of an ethical foreign policy, he said.

"Robin Cook said himself in the European Parliament that he didn't get his colleagues in the Council of Ministers to agree to the whole loaf but he got them to agree to half the loaf and progress has been made," he said.

Campaigners on arms control have criticised Mr Cook's initiative, saying the system is still opaque and there are still no controls on arms dealers and mercenaries who operate from the European Union. Ian Bray of Oxfam gave a muted cheer for the Mr Cook's efforts. "It's a vital first step but there's a long way to go before we get a restrictive and binding code," he said.

Trade unionists had mixed views. While the European TUC was critical, saying jobs were more important than a flexible labour market, Ken Jackson of the engineering union AEEU was delighted. "The British presidency set the pace for Europe by putting employability, flexibility and skills at the top of the agenda," he said.

Environmentalists were delighted that their cause was one of the stated priorities, but had only qualified praise for the results. Tony Juniper, policy and campaigns director of Friends of the Earth, said more progress could have been made on emissions targets.

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