Leading article: So much for putting Britain at the heart of Europe

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The Independent Online

In fact, Europe has hardly featured on the Prime Minister's agenda at all. Between his speech upon accepting the presidency in June and yesterday's address to the European Parliament, Mr Blair has spent little time among European representatives. An Austrian MEP circulated a mock missing persons notice featuring Mr Blair in the European Parliament building yesterday. And the Slovakian Prime Minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, complained recently of Britain's tendency to keep a tight lid on information. So much for Mr Blair's professed goal of putting Britain at the heart of Europe.

Yet such grumbles about Britain's absentee landlord role pale into insignificance when set next to the bitter rifts over the budget that have engulfed the EU. The spectacular collapse of the summit in June over the 2007-13 budget has poisoned the atmosphere. In that meeting, Jacques Chirac stubbornly refused to compromise over France's agricultural subsidies and Mr Blair refused to give up Britain's budget rebate.

And while the politicians have been fiddling, the Eurozone's economy has been slipping into further disarray. The European Commission is now preparing to cut the zone's 2005 growth forecast to a meagre 1.5 per cent and warning of worse to come. The one success has been the agreement to start membership talks with Turkey. Yet even this symbolic move was marred by xenophobic posturing by some states, notably Austria.

Today's informal summit at Hampton Court is an opportunity for Mr Blair to salvage something from Britain's presidency. The meeting has been shortened to one day to ensure the contentious budget is kept off the agenda. Instead, we are told discussion will focus on Europe's response to globalisation. Agreement will be sought on a range of important issues from research and development to energy and demographics. This is likely to be less acrimonious than previous meetings. Germany, represented by the caretaker Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, is not going to make a fuss. And President Chirac has been making conciliatory noises this week about increasing EU investment in research - something designed to please Mr Blair. It seems European leaders at last believe they ought to agree on something - if only for appearances' sake.

The real test for Britain's presidency will come at the planned summit in December. This will represent the last chance to reach a deal on the budget, weeks before Britain's six-month stint in charge comes to an end. Here the prospects of agreement are much less promising. The President of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has suggested revisiting the budget in 2009 as a price for getting a deal now. This may be a way forward - but by no means a clear-cut one. Only last week President Chirac blocked deeper EU concessions over farm trade, threatening to scuttle forthcoming world-trade talks. The competing visions of Europe's future remain almost painfully divergent.

As at home, Mr Blair is leaving it late in the day to achieve his goals. Today's summit is likely to end with a comforting level of consensus, but that should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Mr Blair is in danger of squandering Britain's fleeting EU stewardship.

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