The UK presidency of the EC: A two-edged sword to cut the EC jungle

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The Independent Online
THE PRESIDENCY of the European Community is a two-edged sword. Britain can use it to cut a path through the jungle for the EC; but if it is perceived to have abused the office by diverting the EC's development in a direction of its own choice, the other 11 member states will revolt.

The Council of Ministers, which consists of representatives from the governments of each of 12 EC states, is the most powerful of the European institutions. So chairing the meetings gives Britain some influence in the Community - but only at the margins.

Douglas Hurd, as Foreign Secretary, takes on the mantle of President of the Council. The presidency's main task is to bring the differing views of each country to some compromise, and to push the EC foward. 'The presidency brings responsibilities and does not give us any additional powers of decision,' wrote John Major in the foreword to the document setting out Britain's stall. Indeed, Douglas Hurd may find himself arguing against Tristan Garel- Jones, the Minister of State for European Affairs, when the Foreign Affairs council meets.

The main task of the presidency is to chair meetings. The British minister responsible for each topic will be in the chair: thus Douglas Hurd himself will chair meetings of foreign ministers, while Norman Lamont chairs the powerful economic and finance council (Ecofin). Britain will also represent the EC abroad.

There are two other areas - outside the European Community now, but which come within the ambit of the European Union next year - where Britain plays a role. It takes on a more important role in directing EC foreign policy through what is called European Policy Co-ordination, a loose framework for consultation and agreement. Britain will be playing its traditionally cautious role; but foreign policy is increasingly one of the most divisive and unpredictable areas the presidency has to tackle.

The Trevi group, which groups EC home affairs ministers, will also meet in London, and Britain's demands for border controls to be retained will be on the agenda. Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, is determined to maintain British controls. British ministers fear the external controls by some EC countries on immigrants into the EC are too lax to allow Britain's border controls to be abolished. But ministers are growing increasingly concerned at the influx of immigrants, from Eastern Europe and Africa.

Unofficially, one of the tasks of the presidency is to use the six months to persuade its own citizens of the virtues of Europe and educate the rest of the EC on Britain, through arts events, sporting occasions and a plethora of conferences.

The new Department of National Heritage will be involved in the EC's cultural council, but will also fund the European Arts Festival and host a colloquium on European culture. For the next six months, at least, it will be the Ministry of Euro-Fun.

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