Across Europe, Blair's vision of a changed EU gains support

Posted in Europe | 24-Jun-05 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

British Prime Minister Tony Blair gestures as he addresses the media at the European Parliament in Brussels, Thursday June 23, 2005.

BERLIN Across the European Union - from Estonia and Poland to Hungary and the Netherlands - members nations cautiously embraced on Thursday Tony Blair's vision of a modern bloc financed by a modern budget designed to meet new challenges.

Even though some of these countries were critical of the way the British prime minister blocked an agreement over the 2007-2013 budget at last week's acrimonious summit meeting in Brussels, officials throughout Europe were slowly digesting Blair's call Thursday for a different bloc.

"Yes, we support what Britain is trying to do in terms of reforming the budget, especially agricultural subsidies," said Ehtel Halliste, spokeswoman for the Estonian Foreign Ministry. "And as long as Britain supports enlargement, we welcome these reforms," Halliste said in an interview after Blair's speech to the European Parliament.

Poland too struck an optimistic note. This was despite comments by Prime Minister Marek Belka that "national egos" had prevailed during the summit meeting at the expense of reaching an agreement over a budget to support the new and poorer members of the EU.

Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld of Poland said in Warsaw that he agreed with Blair.

"I really like this vision because Europe today needs to take a fresh look at itself and to adapt better to the challenges of the contemporary world," Rotfeld said. He warned, however, "Poland must not lose out."

Poland already lost out heavily during the summit meeting. As the largest of the 10 entrants into the EU more than a year ago, it was to receive € 60 billion, or $72 billion, over the new seven-year budgetary period.

Now it will have to wait. And it will lose valuable time, since it takes at least 18 months to prepare projects that have to be approved by the European Commission before funds can be allocated.

The Netherlands also adopted a more reflective approach to Blair's speech. Some Dutch politicians challenged Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg's prime minister and chairman of the EU summit meeting, who described the deadlock over the budget as a choice between two visions of Europe. One was a big free-trade zone; the other was politically integrated with a specific social model.

But the Netherlands, which for several years had been calling for a reform of the budget that would include cutting farm subsidies and the British rebate, said the choices were not so starkly "black and white."

"Don't overestimate the differences," Joost Lagendijk, a Dutch Green and member of the European Parliament, said on Radio Netherlands. "I disagree with Mr. Juncker. It's not black and white. Many people in Belgium, in France, in Germany, consider the British model to be a 100 percent copy of the American social model. It's not.

"The European model, on the other hand, is also put into some strange corner as being high on unemployment and high on social benefits and that's it."

Even some in France, the guardian of the EU's costly Common Agricultural Policy, thought that it was time for change. In an editorial, the daily newspaper Le Monde said the only way to find funds for research and development was to slash EU spending on agriculture. France should then move toward more renationalization of the subsidies, the paper said, so farmers would be paid from the French budget and not from the EU budget.

"A partial renationalization is the path to follow," Le Monde wrote. "It is not justifiable that France receive 21 percent of the CAP."

The French government, however, was having none of that. Responding to Blair's speech, Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said on France-Info radio that there would be no change in the EU's farm policy until 2013.

"We have a package for the years 2007-2013," he said. "Political commitments must always be respected."

In Germany, politicians have begun to assess the potential election damage or merits in speaking out about EU budget reform as they prepared for federal elections expected in September.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, however, was quick to adopt the Juncker view of a Europe torn between two competing visions.

Writing in the mass circulation Bild newspaper, Schröder said differences in recent days and weeks "have shown clearly that Europe faces a choice in the coming months between two poles. The first wants to strip out the core of the European Union and reduce it to a kind of free-trade zone. The other wants to preserve a politically active, vital European Union. This is the vision I support."

So far, Angela Merkel, leader of the opposition conservative Christian Democrats who will challenge Schröder in the federal elections, has kept a low profile on this issue, leaving her advisers to speak in favor of Blair's reforms.

Merkel, however, delicately defended farm subsidies while attending a women farmers' day Thursday. "Farmers need reliability and predictability," she said.