EU Analysis: UK presidency was forced on to the defensive after a flying start

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The Independent Online

A deal on the European budget, agreement to start membership talks with Turkey, reform of Europe's subsidy-heavy sugar sector and a landmark accord on the testing of household chemicals. Most prime ministers would count such a record from a six-month presidency of the EU as an impressive tally. But since June this year Tony Blair has been on the defensive because of the expectations of reform and renewal he raised in a barnstorming speech in June, when he told MEPs that "only by change will Europe recover its strength, its relevance, its idealism and its support among people".

The UK's budget rebate could be negotiated, he said, but only if budget reforms could "shape the second half of that [financial] perspective up to 2013. Otherwise it will be 2014 before any fundamental change is agreed, let alone implemented." It was, Mr Blair concluded, "time to give ourselves a reality check. To receive a wake-up call. The people are blowing the trumpets round the city walls. Are we listening?"

Since that oratorical triumph the UK has chaired 4,653 EU meetings, Mr Blair has made three more appearances in the European Parliament, and other ministers have travelled 197 times to Brussels and Luxembourg. Britain has dispensed 5,000 bottles of wine, 1,000 bottles of British bubbly, and 51,500 bottles of UK mineral water in the interests of European business. The result has been solid achievement on some issues, but reform of the EU's structures is destined to be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

In addition to hard-fought deals over Turkish EU membership, chemical testing and reform of sugar subsidies, the UK clinched an anti-terror agreement on data retention. But, with the stakes raised by Mr Blair, the test of the presidency lay in its efforts to clinch a budget for 2007-13 and for wider reform of EU spending. Here the picture is more mixed. Last week's agreement on the budget was a big achievement because it staved off a crisis which would have paralysed the EU.

But British negotiating tactics - proposing big cuts in the subsidies destined for central and eastern European nations - has lost it friends. Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, argues that, while the presidency was successful overall, "some east European diplomats were shocked, not just by the brutal proposed cuts, but by what they saw as the arrogant style of the presidency".

In exchange for concessions on the UK's €5bn rebate, Mr Blair won a fundamental review of the EU budget in 2008 with decisions in 2009. The issue of whether reforms will be implemented before 2013 was fudged - a short-term victory for France, which wants to preserve farm subsidies. It may, after all, be 2014 before change comes along.

In the long-term, however, the review opens up the real prospect of a drastic re- ordering of EU spending and revenue-raising along the lines advocated by Mr Blair. Securing it will be the job of his successor.