Lack of leadership from a feeble government: A grudging display has left Britain on the margins, argues Stanley Clinton-Davis

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The Independent Online
THE MOST that can be said for John Major's handling of the EC presidency is that, as Teddy Roosevelt once said of William Howard Taft, US President from 1909 to 1913, 'he means well feebly'. At a time of doubt and fear engendered by recession and rising unemployment, it is particularly unfortunate that the presidency has been in the hands of so enfeebled a government. Its chief aim in Edinburgh must be the avoidance of disaster, in the belief that anything less can be presented as a success.

In his message to the EC before he assumed the presidency, Mr Major said: 'I am looking forward to . . . demonstrating Britain in its proper place - at the heart of Europe.'

It has not turned out quite like that. It is not only the setbacks of the currency fiasco, the rows with the Bundesbank, the withdrawal from the exchange rate mechanism, the immensely difficult problems thrown up by the Danish referendum, or even the mounting crescendo of contradictions on almost every policy one can think of, that have presented such a sorry spectacle of the presidency. There also has been an almost total lack of direction and leadership.

The truth is that the Government still hankers after the notion that the EC should be regarded as no more than a trading bloc of co-operating nations, rejecting the concept of building a true community, as accepted by all others except Denmark. The opt-out on the social chapter has been accompanied by opt-outs on the questions of a central bank and a common currency. All have had the effect of marginalising Britain's view on the substance and details of these critical issues, and London has lost out as the site for the central bank.

So, in its pivotal role as president, the UK has not only isolated itself on policies of central importance but also has manipulated the agenda to advance its own alleged interests rather than help promote agreement among member states - the essential role of the presidency. The clearest example lies in the development of social policies, where Britain has stymied progress over the past six months. There are many others.

With unemployment in the EC at more than 15 million, it was vital for the presidency to have accorded priority to economic recovery. Instead, Britain has been grudging and minimalist. The presidency has reneged on the principle of a cohesion fund, as agreed at Maastricht, to help poorer states (Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece - and conceivably the UK in the not-too-distant future), and these countries may now unite to exclude the accession of Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Britain's voice has been muted on the issue of giving the citizens of Europe more control over decisions taken at EC level. Insufficient prominence has been given to tackling the 'democratic deficit', which goes to the heart of concerns of remoteness about the community's institutions. The British presidency has become obsessed about one issue - defining 'subsidiarity' - but even this may be a sham.

Regrettably, the presidency has lacked coherence, conviction and vision, but in one area it stands unchallenged - presentational ingenuity. I suppose we can count on that, if on little else.

Lord Clinton-Davis is a former EC Commissioner.