Prezza unleashed on suave Paris diplomat

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The Independent Online

One is an ex-merchant seaman and union bruiser renowned for plain speaking; the other is a suave ex-cardiologist whose political ties won him the post of France's top diplomat.

This week the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, goes head to head with the French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, in a battle for the hearts and minds of the former Communist countries that joined the EU last year. In what has turned into a scheduling nightmare for officials across eastern Europe, both men are visiting the same capitals over the next few days. Diaries from Warsaw to Bratislava are being juggled to avoid the ultimate diplomatic embarrassment of the British and French envoys bumping into one another.

Britain and France are lobbying for support on the eve of the UK's presidency of the EU. And Tony Blair suddenly finds himself on the defensive among his erstwhile allies in eastern Europe after the summit fiasco in Brussels last weekend, when he blocked a deal on EU spending plans for 2007-13. That alarmed the newest entrants who would lose most, because they are due to gain massive subsidies to revitalise their economies from 2007. Poland is also wary of British moves to overhaul agriculture spending, because of its huge farm sector.

Given a special ambassadorial role for Britain's EU presidency, which starts this week, Mr Prescott told The Independent on Sunday yesterday he will be in "listening mode". He promised to encourage the debate on the future of the EU, sparked by Mr Blair last week, and "to reassure people that we want to get a resolution to the budget debate".

"I don't think it is an issue of competing with the French. What happened in Brussels was an immediate shock. Everybody agrees that the fallout may affect the east European countries."

Mr Prescott who met the Hungarian Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, in Vienna last week, said the UK will study a Hungarian plan to break the deadlock by agreeing an interim budget for 2007-09 - leaving open the option of far-reaching reform thereafter. "I think it is an essential requirement, whether for the French or ourselves, to understand how our partners are feeling about it," he said.

Mr Prescott's push will be supported by Douglas Alexander, the minister for Europe, whose opposite number, Catherine Colonna, will back up M Douste-Blazy. The diplomatic beauty contest starts tomorrow when both M Douste-Blazy and Mr Alexander will be in Warsaw at a conference hosted by the Polish Foreign Minister, Adam Rotfeld.

The following day Mr Prescott is expected to arrive in the same city. He then visits Prague, Budapest and Bratislava, while Mr Alexander heads off to the Baltic states. M Douste-Blazy plans meetings in Prague, Budapest and possibly Bratislava. Although he many not have M Douste-Blazy's style, Mr Prescott probably knows his way around the EU better. He once sat in the European Parliament, and was offered the post of European Commissioner.

The French move to court eastern Europe would not have been contemplated a few months ago. In the run-up to the Iraq war M Chirac infuriated ex-Communist countries who backed the US and UK by telling them they had "missed a good opportunity to keep their mouths shut".