by RAY FLEMING
l THERE have been difficult European Union summits before; in fact it is probably true to say that very few of these quarterly meetings are free of contentious issues and now, with 25 members, the chances of disagreement and deadlock are obviously greater than ever. That having been said, the Brussels meeting later this week has a particularly high potential for serious disagreement and even unpleasantness. The main agenda item, the EU's budget for the next six years, would have been a tricky issue at any time, with ten new members involved for the first time, but the dispute that has blown up beween Britain and France over the former's rebate, first negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, has ensured that a head-on disagreement between these two major powers will dominate proceedings. Britain has little support for its belief that the rebate is fair and should be continued; on the other hand a number of countries may agree with Mr Blair that if the UK rebate is to be re-considered so should many other aspects of the budget, not least the huge sum taken by the Common Agricultural Policy of which France is the principal beneficiary. It is being said that President Chirac and Chancellor Schroder of Germany are setting a trap for Mr Blair. They have been seen embracing each other and smiling broadly in Berlin and Paris, but to this observer the spring seems to have gone from their steps and the confidence they once radiated as the chief engineers of the EU motor has fallen away. President Chirac suffered a humiliating defeat in the French referendum on the EU constitution and Chancellor Schroder's position has weakened to the point that he has thought it necessary to call an early election which he is by no means sure to win. By contrast, Mr Blair is newly re-elected for an historic third term, currently the chairman of the G8 and about to take over the presidency of the EU. He holds all the best cards and it is unlikely that he will fail to take most of the tricks.