Cooking up a storm: Behind the scenes with Blair, Straw and the EU presidency

Michael Cockerell charts the UK's six months at the helm of Europe - and the delicate act of getting the mix of ingredients just right
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The Independent Online

There is something about the EU that seems to bring out the chef in its leaders. When I was making tonight's BBC2 documentary about Tony Blair and the British presidency, almost everyone would come up with culinary imagery.

Perhaps that is not surprising. The European project was born on the farm. Fifty years ago, large parts of Europe were still suffering food shortages and malnutrition. Since then, the EU has evolved around the notorious Common Agricultural Policy, the Brussels system of paying huge subsidies to (mainly French) farmers. Mr Blair saw the CAP as a central problem when he took over the rotating six-month presidency last July. Europe was without a budget, largely because Britain and France were in acrimonious disagreement over money.

Mr Blair thought it madness that 40 per cent of the budget still went on the farm subsidy policy. This was President Jacques Chirac's sacred cow and Mr Blair wanted it taken to the knacker's yard.

M. Chirac said he would not make the slightest concession on the CAP. And added when he thought he was off the record: "The only thing Britain has ever given European farming is mad cow disease. You can't trust people who cook as badly as the British. It's the country with the worst food in the world, after Finland."

M. Chirac wanted to butcher Britain's sacred cow, the famous budget rebate Margaret Thatcher had won with her handbag diplomacy 20 years earlier. Mr Blair said he would "not negotiate away the rebate, period". So it was carving knives at dawn for the two leaders as the British presidency began.

Mr Blair wanted first to promote a feelgood factor among his fellow EU heads, hoping to erase memories of the previous summit just before he took over, when a ferocious slanging match between him and M. Chirac resulted in a front-page Independent cartoon called "The Dinner from Hell".

In October, Mr Blair invited his counterparts to Hampton Court, Henry VIII's sumptuous palace, for an informal summit. The 25 leaders alone sat in the Great Hall together, their discussions relayed to the interpreters outside by miniature TV cameras hired from the Big Brother television show.

Mr Blair was also attempting gastronomic diplomacy. He laid on a lunch of salmon, venison and sticky toffee pudding, washed down by English white wine and a 1986 French claret. M. Chirac seemed to enjoy the day. The leaders talked about the future of Europe. The atmosphere within the EU improved noticeably.

But by December, Mr Blair had succeeded only in uniting most of Europe against his proposals for a slimmed budget. At the final summit of his presidency in Brussels, Mr Blair again thought the way to his fellow leaders' hearts was through their stomachs. There was an all-British menu at the working dinner: finnan haddie soup, Northern Ireland lamb and English cheeses - but no pudding - with a white wine from Wales and a red from Kent. Not nearly all of the leaders laid into their host's budget plan. One British diplomat called the atmosphere "poisonous". M. Chirac said he never wanted a dinner like that again.

Early in the morning, I asked Jack Straw, as he prepared to leave his hotel for the summit, what he thought the chances were of a deal.

The Foreign Secretary reached for his cookbook. "There comes a moment in negotiations where it's either going to come together or it's going to fall apart.

"And if I may use a cooking analogy, because I make a lot of emulsified sauces, which are inherently unstable but delicious if they work. So, if you're combining egg yolks and fat to make hollandaise or bearnaise sauce, you carry on stirring. If you've got the stirring right and the ingredients right, it all comes together and it's fantastic. The endgame of making the sauce is small and short.

"On the other hand, if you haven't quite got it quite right, or you're not paying attention, you carry on stirring and all of a sudden there comes a moment where it all falls apart. And in cooking - as in life - it's bringing it together which is the challenge."

Impressed by the imagery, I asked Mr Straw if it was one he had prepared earlier. "No, it just came out like that from the top of my head", he said. After 20 more hours of heated negotiations, Mr Blair and Mr Straw announced they had cooked up a budget deal with the 24 other countries.

Jose Barroso, the European Commission president, added: "It is always very difficult to agree a budget in the European Union. It is like making sausages: you should not look closely at how they are made, but in the end it is important that they are good."

But were they? You can catch the flavour for yourself tonight.

Michael Cockerell's behind-the-scenes documentary on Mr Blair's six-month EU presidency, Tony's Tight Spot, is on BBC2, at 7.25pm