John Lichfield: Spare us your sanctimonious rubbish, Mr Blair

Everything must be put on hold until Saint Tony slays the dragon of the Common Agricultural Policy
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The sight and sound of British hypocrisy in full spate is hugely impressive. And hugely distressing to those who broadly support the Blairist "agenda" for a more agile, democratic, forward-looking European Union.

Ask the Poles. Or the Estonians. Or the Czechs. They, the eastern Europeans, were the real victims, and heroes, of the absurd Battle of Brussels: not Tony Blair and not Jacques Chirac.

Far from creating the conditions for a new, pragmatic, (supply more Blairist adjectives of your choice) European Union, Blair blew it on Friday night at the Brussels summit. He blew it, one imagines, because he felt weak domestically, not strong. He blew it because it was easier to play to the domestic gallery - always up for a bit of "happy slapping" of the French and the EU - than to make a tactical concession for a potentially huge, strategic gain.

Far from defeating the French (on the eve of the 190th anniversary of Waterloo), Blair has, in effect, stumbled into a French trap. The last compromise on the table - freezing the British rebate at above its present level - was not a perfect deal but it was a perfectly reasonable one. If Blair had accepted the offer, he would have entered his six months in the EU presidency as the man to resolve the crisis created by the French "non" and Dutch "nee" to the European constitution.

He would have had the rest of the year to sell his ideas for a de-regulated, socially responsible, innovative (add more Blairist adjectives of your choice) EU. Instead, he created another crisis. With the left wing of the European chateau on fire, he set fire to the right wing.

The last thing that Chirac wanted in the last six months was an ascendant Tony Blair, promoting his Anglo-Saxon ideas for re-shaping the EU. By cynically turning up the heat on the UK rebate, Chirac was trying to distract from the constitutional crisis created by France. He also wanted to prevent Blair from entering his EU presidency with the political and moral wind in his sails.

The French press have declared the summit a victory for Blair and for "liberalism". They are partly motivated by contempt for Chirac. They are also anxious to tease the left-wing politicians in France who promised that rejection of the EU constitution would lead directly to a socialist Europe.

In truth, Chirac, a wounded, cornered and dangerous man, is probably quite pleased with his two days' work in Brussels. The eastern Europeans, the Italians, the Irish, the European Commission president, José-Manuel Barroso - all seen in Paris as Blair fans and allies - were left cursing Tony Blair, not Jacques Chirac.

We are now told that Blair rejected the rebate deal because he wanted to blow up the entire "archaic", backward-looking, financial structure of the EU and open the way to a modern, agile (add still more Blairist adjectives) budget system.

Nothing to do with the totemic significance of the UK rebate (justified, but no longer justified in its entirety). Nothing to do with the Daily Mail and Gordon Brown waiting to pounce if he had given way.

The salvation of the Union depends, we are told, on altering the structure of a budget which represents 1 per cent of the union's GDP (compared with 40-50 per cent of GDP for national budgets). This is equivalent to saying that a sick man can only be cured by amputating and replacing his little finger.

Everything else must be put on hold until Saint Tony slays the dragon of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). I have no space, or inclination, for an extensive defence of the CAP but the policy has already been radically reformed. Its portion of the EU budget has come down from 70 per cent to 40 per cent.

Its share remains absurdly large because it is the only spending policy which has been transferred from national budgets to the Brussels budget. Gradually, it should be shoved on to national budgets again but this is not the most important issue facing the EU. Since France is now also a large net contributor, UK tax-payers' money does not go, de facto, "to French farmers". It goes to Irish, Portuguese, Greek and, above all, Spanish regional development grants - and farmers.

It would also have gone, over the next seven or eight years, to important development projects in eastern Europe. The whole point in agreeing a budget framework to 2013 was to help the eastern Europeans to plan such projects properly. Now they cannot.

For Blair to lack the courage to make a tactical concession in Brussels is fine. He has the right to judge what he can get away with domestically. Please spare us, however, the sanctimonious rubbish about how saving the UK rebate will help to save the EU. In truth, nothing sensible can now happen to move the EU forward until a generation of timid, shortsighted leaders leaves office over the next two years. This includes Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. It also includes Tony Blair.

indyparis@compuserve.com

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