Leading article: Mr Blair must use the next three months to make up for lost time

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The Independent Online

And there is a general tendency for EU presidencies to gather pace in the second half, as seeds planted in the first months start to pierce the surface. The slow start was particularly excusable this time because of when Britain took over: amid the soul-searching that followed the rejection of the EU constitution by France and the Netherlands and the acrimonious failure of EU leaders to approve a new budget.

So not everything can be laid at the door of the Government, but much can. The Prime Minister was at least partly to blame for the collapse of talks on the EU budget, because he absolutely refused to countenance changes in arrangements for the British rebate. A more conciliatory attitude might have got the British presidency off to a more auspicious beginning.

Talks are proceeding on a new budget that would cut farm subsidies across the board. But Mr Schröder, for one, wants a return to the deal that was on the table in June. Even if Angela Merkel succeeds him, her room for manoeuvre will be curbed by her slim majority and the strength of the farming lobby in her own CDU/CSU alliance. There will be no agreement without British concessions.

The ambivalence of German voters towards faster, more market-orientated reforms has also taken some shine off the one big set-piece event planned for the British presidency: a "social summit" that would have had Britain's economic success as its focus. The slowing of Britain's growth, the increase in our budget deficit, and the declining political fortunes of Nicolas Sarkozy - the chief French exponent of free-market reforms - all make the social summit look a questionable idea.

The other intended highlight of the British presidency was the start of accession talks with Turkey. Here again Britain seems not to have anticipated the shifting mood. When France and the Netherlands effectively killed the EU constitution, the Government quietly hailed this as a triumph for its own, looser vision of the EU. Other governments understood, though, that it was also a protest against rapid EU expansion. They translated this into a rethink on Turkey - a change British diplomacy was too slow to counter. The fate of the talks now hangs on an emergency summit to be held tomorrow.

But the EU presidency is an opportunity for the holder not only to set the agenda in Europe, but also to advance a European agenda at home. This is where Mr Blair has failed most egregiously. How much time has this government spent promoting Europe since 1 July? How many references to Europe or to the British presidency were there at the Labour conference this week? Precious few, with the exception of Mr Blair's patronising quip about French malaise and German angst. Neither European flags nor European guests were in evidence at this event. Why not? We can only hope that Mr Blair uses the next three months to make up for lost time.

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