Blair hosts budget talks as Chirac hardens stance

9th December 2005, Comments 0 comments

LONDON, Dec 8 (AFP) - British Prime Minister Tony Blair plunged into two days of intensive face-to-face talks in London with no fewer than nine fellow European Union leaders Thursday, hoping to crack the EU budget deadlock.

LONDON, Dec 8 (AFP) - British Prime Minister Tony Blair plunged into two days of intensive face-to-face talks in London with no fewer than nine fellow European Union leaders Thursday, hoping to crack the EU budget deadlock.

But prospects for success ahead of a crunch EU summit next week were dimmed by French President Jacques Chirac, who said that proposals set out Monday by the British EU presidency were "unsatisfactory".

"The current proposals from the British presidency are unsatisfactory from the French point of view," said Chirac before talks in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"It is vital that every member state carries an equal share of the cost of enlargement," he said, adding that this would imply "a long-term restructuring of Britain's rebate" -- a key stumbling block on the road to a consensus on the way the 25-nation bloc will spend its billions in 2007-13.

Undaunted by widespread rejection of London's proposals, Blair began his apparent diplomatic mission impossible by greeting Portugal's Prime Minister José Socrates at his Downing Street residence.

Socrates is one of the few not to have rejected the proposals out of hand, having said Tuesday he was certain they would "evolve" into an agreement at the EU summit next Thursday and Friday.

Later in the day, Blair met in turn with the prime ministers of Finland, Slovenia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium. Following on Friday were counterparts from Ireland, Greece and Spain, with Denmark expected on Monday.

Blair was also to meet Friday with European Commission President José Manual Barroso, who earlier this week branded the proposals "unacceptable" in the wake of last year's enlargement into Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

He will also speak by telephone with the leaders of Luxembourg, which failed to get a budget agreement during its EU presidency earlier this year, and Austria, which could find itself saddled with the problem when it takes over the helm in January.

Speaking late Thursday, Blair's spokesman said compromise would be necessary all round.

"This deal, if we can do a deal, will not be anybody's ideal deal, but it may be the best deal we can get for Europe," he said, adding that the leaders who saw Blair all believed there was "a serious basis for possible agreement".

"That doesn't mean that there will be agreement, but I think everybody thinks this is a serious effort."

The spokesman added that everyone had backed the idea of incorporating into an agreement a full review of EU spending policy, including the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), from 2008.

Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson injected a rare dose of optimism into the proceedings, telling journalists at Downing Street: "There is a good chance to have a deal."

He played down the sense of crisis, saying it would be "a sensation" if EU leaders did not stubbornly defend their respective national interests.

Blair started his pre-summit consultations with a swing through eastern Europe last week, then spoke by phone earlier this week with Chirac, who has called for a new set of proposals.

In Brussels on Wednesday to see his colleagues, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said fresh proposals would indeed be forthcoming early next week. He gloomily added, however, that the chances of success were "narrow".

Under the British proposals, overall EU spending from 2007-2013 would be capped 1.03 percent of the 25-member bloc's gross national income, or EUR 846.8 billion.

Britain would forgo eight billion euros of its annual EU budget rebate over seven years, but most of the savings from the earlier Luxembourg proposals would come from a seven to eight percent cut in planned structural and cohesion funds for new member states.

The proposals followed Britain's failure to get France to accept fundamental reforms to the CAP in return for changes to the rebate, secured in 1984, which compensates Britain for the relatively little it reaps in farm subsidies.

The CAP gobbles up more than 40 percent of EU expenditures, with French farmers the number one beneficiaries. Blair thinks CAP reform can help ease global poverty and free up EU money for other forms of economic development.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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