Small earthquake in Europe, few injured

05 December 2005
Blink and you might have missed it, but the UK has held the Presidency of the EU for the last six months.

It has been an interesting time, but mind you that is a Chinese curse. It has been a tough year to be a pro-European, and the UK's dismal effort has not made life any easier.

The UK took over the Presidency of the EU from tiny Luxembourg back in the sunny, chaotic days of July. The French and Dutch had just voted no to the proposed constitution, the new member states were getting their feet under the table and starting to change the way the EU does business, the aristocratic Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker had just failed to broker a deal on the budget (largely because of the UK position) and the only talk in town, in Brussels at any rate, was about where the EU should go to now.

The UK had a golden opportunity to take the EU in a new direction. The new member states have a completely different vision of the EU to the francophile club of old. The Nordic countries like Denmark, Sweden, even Austria, are keen on reform. The hefty skelp delivered by the French and Dutch voters had injected a note of urgency to the whole discussion. Never before had a reforming President in Office had such an opportunity.

And now, six months later, what is different? Not much, and that's sad. Last week's summit saw the traditional shabby pork barrel horse trading behind closed doors in Brussels in dead of night. The excitement! The glamour! Reporters breathlessly relaying the latest minutiae, the flags, the limousines, the gallons and gallons of strong Belgian coffee, all leading to the same old cobbled together compromise that leaves everyone claiming victory and nobody actually satisfied. The eventual budget deal differs little from the old one, other than the fact that Scotland will be getting less than half the EU funding we used to. Gaun yersel Tony, thanks a half a billion.

The UK rebate so close to Gordon Brown's heart was, we were told, not on the table. Then it was. Then chunks of it were given away for no promises of any actual reform at all. What about all the warm words we heard about the need to reform the EU? Nobody would deny that the Common Agricultural Policy is in sore need of reform. The SNP has been campaigning against thedisastrous Common Fisheries Policy for years and years. So what happened? The UK did not bring forward one real proposal to reform, I can only conclude it was all just a smokescreen to annoy the French, and we really needed better.

The UK made positive noises about the Council of Ministers meetings being made open. At present the deals are done in secret, the only legislative body outside of Pyongyang or Havana to do so. To open up Council meetings would revolutionise the way the EU does business. But as the year comes to an end, we saw the same old secret meetings with no prospect of any change.

How about the EU constitution, which the Labour party told us was so vital to Europe's future? I disagree, I am not convinced it was on balance the way to go, but if they seriously thought it worth salvaging could they not have made some effort to do so? Off the agenda. Once the French and Dutch voted no, the UK dropped it. We are currently in a "period of reflection" on where the EU should be going, but the ship is still drifting.

On a few technical things, there has been progress, and measures like a package on the rights of disabled air travellers or an EU wide airline safety blacklist are concrete steps to improve the lives of the EU's citizens. But they are at best only partly achievements of the UK Presidency, the European Parliament was instrumental in all of them. And a few of the deals that have been done were poor ones. The REACH chemicals legislation could have ushered in a new era of consumer protection in Europe, instead, the gutted package adopted will not deliver. The UK proposals which a majority of the European Parliament agreed to on data retention will create a society where all e-mails, text messages, phone call records and the like will be kept for future reference, and I do not think that is a good idea at all. We've also seen a "see no evil hear no evil" approach from the UK over CIA flights, which was, fortunately, rejected out of hand by the European parliament and we will indeed set up an inquiry into this.

But the tone of the UK Presidency will be the abiding memory of the last six months. Ministers turned up late for meetings, were poorly informed and showed little respect for their obligations, especially when in front of the European Parliament. From day one Margaret Beckett MP, the London really needed better. Agriculture Minister, managed to have most of the Agriculture committee of MEPs walk out on her, so displeased were they with her manner and the way she responded to questions. Douglas Alexander MP, the London Europe Minister, must be glad that he does not have to come to Strasbourg any more, his debating society insincerity having provoked a slapping all about the Chamber from MEPs normally polite to the point of torpor.

So all in all, the UK could have done rather better, though in the final analysis nobody has died in a ditch, and the EU drifts along as before. It is the missed opportunity that is the sad thing. I do not think it unrealistic to have hoped for some real reform from the UK, but perhaps it was unrealistic to expect this government to match its own rhetoric. Europe is the poorer for it and Scotland has missed out. It is well seeing that the Austrians and Finns have published a joint work plan for their Presidencies in 2006, they have lots to do.