Leading article: Poor start to our presidency

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The Independent Online

Well, the six-month presidency has started not with a shout of acclamation but a chorus of disapproval if not outright censure. When the former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, accused Britain of achieving "very little" so far to move things forward in Europe, he was voicing a common complaint in the Brussels commission and the foreign ministries of Europe. Despite the brave talk of summer, Britain appears to have done remarkably little to progress even the most technical of meetings. The dispute over the EU's budget, including the British rebate, remains unresolved.

Nor are the politics of Europe running quite so strongly in our direction any longer. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, having put the backs of most of his continental colleagues by up lecturing them on Britain's example, is now himself the subject of censure by the EU for breaking the rules of the Stability Pact.

Despite every prediction, the German electorate has not gone overboard for Angela Merkel. Indeed it is perfectly possible that the chancellorship could remain for the rest of this year in the hands of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Meanwhile, Number 10's other continental favourite, Nicolas Sarkozy, is also losing ground in France.

To be fair to the Prime Minister, he never openly espoused the hopes and ambitions so enthusiastically spun by his communications department, while the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, can usually be relied on to sound the wrong note on these occasions.

Yet part of the problem does lie with Number 10. Tony Blair talks much of wanting Britain to be back in the heart of Europe. Whenever it comes to the point, however, he seems bored with the preparation, almost invariably leaves any summit as quickly as he can, and does little to build up the kind of personal rapport and alliances needed to gain momentum in Europe.

Britain has a unique opportunityto restore its position and to push its causes in Europe. Further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, deregulation and liberalisation - all these could be pushed with the right support. Even Turkish entry to the Union is not yet a lost cause. But Mr Blair is going to have to apply his unrivalled qualities of persuasion and charm if he is to make a success of his presidency. And he needs to start doing it now.

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