Britain faces the moment of truth in EU presidency

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The Independent Online

When Britain took over the rotating presidency of the European Union in July, Tony Blair had high hopes of remoulding the EU in the UK's image.

The rejection of the proposed EU constitution in the French and Dutch referendums presented an opportunity to push an alternative UK agenda. Instead of looking inwards, Mr Blair hoped that Europe would accept the challenge of globalisation and make economic changes.

Although two "big vision" speeches by Mr Blair were well received by the European Parliament, things have not gone according to plan during Britain's six months in the EU hot seat.

The Blair EU project was based on a decisive change of government in Germany's election in September.

But, although Angela Merkel became Chancellor, she failed to win a majority or a mandate for UK-style reforms.

As the presidency draws to a close, the balance sheet looks less favourable than Mr Blair would have hoped.

His only comfort is that Britain's term would have been disastrous without the deal on the EU budget for 2007-13 that took shape at the Brussels summit last night.

Nonetheless, the Prime Minister had to scale down his ambition for a "big deal" on the budget - trading the rebate on Britain's EU contributions for a firm commitment to curb spending on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The "little deal" he settled for will not guarantee cuts in the CAP, merely a review.

British ministers deny their presidency has been a disappointment.

They point to the historic decision in October to start EU membership negotiations with Turkey on schedule despite last-minute doubts in some EU states, especially in Austria.Ministers also trumpet agreement on long-delayed changes to Europe's subsidies for the sugar industry; reaching a deal to screen thousands of chemicals found in household goods and a plan to combat terrorism plans by retaining e-mails and mobile telephone records throughout Europe.

After the collapse of the constitution, it was never going to be an easy period to chair the EU.

Mr Blair had an inauspicious start as he was widely blamed for the failure of talks on the budget at the last major summit in June.

That required much fence-mending with Britain's natural allies in eastern Europe, who were desperate for a deal to secure their EU aid.

The hard pounding at the Brussels summit over the past two days reminded Mr Blair just how difficult it was to turn EU rhetoric into reality.

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