Britain to push for CAP reform in EU presidency


Prime Minister Tony Blair will take on the challenge of tackling Europe's constitution and its stalled budget talks as Britain assumes the rotating EU presidency today.

Mr Blair will mark the start of the UK's six months at the EU helm by holding talks in London with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and the other Brussels commissioners.

It is the politics of the playground. The knock-on effect of the Common Agricultural Policy is that people die eight miles south of Europe
Bob Geldof

Mr Blair has already made clear his intention to use the period to push his campaign for reform of the EU finances and the system of lavish farm subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

It is likely to bring him into renewed conflict with French President Jacques Chirac who is determined to protect the generous CAP payouts to farmers, which heavily favour the French.

Normally the presidency is supposed to act as an "honest broker", resolving disputes between member states in an impartial manner. However, British officials have indicated they would be ready to bring forward proposals for radical budget reform if they thought an agreement was possible.

Mr Blair has said that he would be prepared to negotiate over Britain's annual £3 billion EU budget rebate as part of an overall deal. However, that may not be enough to placate Mr Chirac following their bruising clash at last month's Brussels summit when talks to settle the budget for 2007-13 collapsed amid recriminations.

Mr Blair won support from an unexpected quarter yesterday when Live 8 organiser Bob Geldof said the French refusal to give up the CAP was costing lives in Africa where producers were unable to export to Europe because of the subsidies.

"There is some difficulty with France being able to give up the Common Agricultural Policy," said Mr Geldof who was appearing alongside Mr Blair in a studio debate for the MTV satellite station.

"It is a distorting mechanism. It is the politics of the playground. The knock-on effect of the Common Agricultural Policy is that people die eight miles south of Europe."

There is pressure from within the EU to reach agreement on the budget to restore momentum to the beleaguered European project following the decisive rejection of the new constitution by French and Dutch voters.

The 10 new accession states - who Britain has been keen to woo - also want to see an early deal so that funding from Brussels can start flowing to them.

However, with relations between Britain and France at rock bottom, Mr Chirac may be unwilling to give Mr Blair the satisfaction of settling the issue during the UK presidency.