by RAY FLEMING
WHEN Margaret Thatcher negotiated her famous rebate from the European Union budget Britain was almost the poorest country in the EU. Today it is one of the richest and the case for the rebate would be hard to sustain if it were not for its status as a symbolic financial riposte to the benefits France receives from the Common Agricultural Policy. Even with the cuts in the rebate offered by Mr Blair in Brussels on Friday, the amount Britain gets back from it will continue to grow during the next budget period. Furthermore, the overall effect of these negotiations is that, while Britain's contribution to the EU budget will go up by 63 per cent, the French will be paying in 116 per cent more. The Prime Minister will not expect to get an objective media assessment of what he achieved in Brussels. Nor will the New Conservatives look kindly on the deals he made if Mr Hague's sub-Churchillian comment that “Seldom in the course of European negotiations has so much been surrendered for so little” is indicative. Eurosceptics will want to overlook the fact that Mr Blair had to act as president of the EU as well as prime minister of Britain, but he could not escape that dual responsibility and he managed it with aplomb and integrity. Britain's six-month presidency of the EU, now ending, has not lived up to Mr Blair's “modernising” rhetoric and he has not been able to recover the ground he lost to President Chirac in 2002 when his mind was on other things. Nonetheless his handling of the budget this week has been workmanlike and, in particular, he has ensured that the EU keeps financial faith with the new entrants from Eastern Europe whose case for membership Mr Blair always argued convincingly. The presidency of the EU now passes to Austria and, in July to Finland; 2006 should be a year of quiet recuperation for the EU after the shock of negative referendums on the constitution earlier this year and the difficult budget negotiations just satisfactorily concluded.

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