Juncker plays the blame game as Blair prepares for EU presidency

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is being portrayed as the architect of Europe's latest political crisis as he prepares to launch a British EU presidency which is in deep trouble even before it starts.

Tony Blair is being portrayed as the architect of Europe's latest political crisis as he prepares to launch a British EU presidency which is in deep trouble even before it starts.

Ahead of his appearance in the European Parliament this morning, Mr Blair came under direct attack from the French President, Jacques Chirac, and from Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who chaired last week's acrimonious Brussels summit.

Meanwhile, Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, called for a public debate on Turkey's ambitions to join the EU - one of the priorities for the British presidency which starts on 1 July.

Brussels is still in shock after last week's bitter summit clash in which a small group of countries, led by Britain, blocked a deal over the EU budget for 2007-13.

Yesterday Mr Juncker received two ovations from MEPs as he gave a blow-by-blow account of how Britain refused to surrender part of its annual budget rebate. Mr Juncker suggested that his plans to reform the rebate were deliberately misrepresented by a British premier determined not to compromise.

The main proposal rejected by the UK would have exempted the costs of spending in the new EU countries - apart from agriculture - from the scope of the rebate. That would have made it worth €5.5bn (£3.7bn) annually - considerably more than now.

"It is not true to say that the [Luxembourg] presidency wanted to kill the British rebate," said Mr Juncker, "we wanted to maintain it in the context of the 15 [countries which made up the EU before it enlarged last year]. We wanted this rebate to show greater solidarity to the new member states. It was wrong to reject this."

Mr Juncker said pointedly that he was explaining to MEPs, "because no one else will and because you're likely to hear other explanations in the near future" - a direct reference to Mr Blair's speech today.

And the Luxembourg premier referred to an offer by former Communist countries to sacrifice some of their subsidies in the interests of a deal. These countries, he said "were giving us a lesson in ambition. I think this is a good reason for those not able to speak the same language to be ashamed of what they did."

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, M. Chirac argued that almost all governments, including France, had "done everything possible" to agree on an EU budget framework up to 2013. "Unfortunately this was not possible, because of British intransigence," he said.

M. Chirac once again rejected the UK argument that the Common Agricultural Policy must be radically reformed before the British EU rebate can be abolished or reduced. The CAP had been extensively reformed only three years ago, M. Chirac said.

After a meeting of the EU Commission, Mr Barroso questioned the policy of negotiating Turkey's EU entry. "We should discuss the signal that was sent by the electorate regarding Turkey," he said, though he added that plans to start talks on 3 October should continue.

The investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchainéreported that M. Chirac had come back from Brussels describing Mr Blair as "like Thatcher only worse - as arrogant as she was but even more selfish".

Diplomatic sources in Paris suggest, however, that M. Chirac was content with the summit. The row had distracted attention from the French "no" to the constitution and disrupted Mr Blair's hopes of introducing a British path to EU reform in the next six months.