Parliament & politics: Europe: Howard attacks Britain's EU 'flop'

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BRITAIN'S PRESIDENCY of the European Union was a "flop", the shadow Foreign Secretary said last night. Michael Howard attacked the Government's presidency as "one of the most timid and poor in recent times".

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, defended the Government's performance in a debate on next week's European Summit in Cardiff, which marks the end of Britain's six-month tenure.

Mr Howard vigorously attacked the Government's handling of the presidency. "The European Parliament took a more favourable view of the last Conservative presidency than they did of the present Labour presidency," he told the House. He said European employment policies, which embraced the Social Chapter, were "job-destroying".

"Has a single job been created as a result of action taken by the UK presidency?" he asked. Mr Howard criticised a lack of action over the Common Agricultural Policy, saying that forthcoming reform was "buried in the small print of the half-term report".

Unemployment in Britain was 6.4 per cent, which was too high, but in Germany it was 11.4 per cent, in Belgium and France 11.9 per cent and in Spain 19.6 per cent.

The Foreign Secretary told the House he thought the presidency had been beneficial for Britain and Europe. "We will be among the first three countries in the EU to ratify the Amsterdam Treaty," he said.

Its most successful element had been the launch of the enlargement process, which would extend the EU eastwards. "It is important to our interest that at the time of our presidency we proved advocates and friends of their membership," he told MPs.

He also trumpeted the leading role Britain had played in job-creation policies, Wednesday's partial lifting of the beef ban and the co-ordinated European attitude towards Kosovo. He said Britain's high standing in America was of direct benefit to the rest of Europe during the presidency, helping to avert a potential trade rift.

Mr Cook outlined the agenda for next week's summit. He said it was to include:

The creation of a timetable for entry for the dozen former communist bloc countries into the EU;

Discussion of economic reform with the finance group;

The start of the overhaul of Brussels red tape, including reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, responsible for more than half of EU spending.

The summit would mark the success or failure of Britain's EU presidency, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday. "Cardiff is an important event for us. The presidency has been a great privilege and opportunity for this Government, coming so soon after its arrival in office.

"We wanted to signal throughout a new and positive approach which would be good for Britain and Europe. We believe in many ways that if the summit is a success then the presidency will have been a success," he said.

Donald Anderson, the Labour chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said he was impressed that the Foreign Secretary had achieved the unprecedented agreement on an EU code of conduct in respect of arms exports.

t In the House of Lords, the Foreign Office minister Baroness Symons was criticised for not appearing in a parallel debate.

Lady Symons, currently on Foreign Office business in the US and Canada, came under fire from Tory foreign affairs spokesman Lord Moynihan for missing the final parliamentary debate on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

The Government was defeated in the Lords last month when peers amended the Bill, which enacts the EU's Amsterdam Treaty, to delay ratification pending "legal protec- tion" for British fishermen against quota-hopping. But that amendment was overturned by the Commons on Tuesday - and peers last night accepted MPs' decision.