Blair blasted after EU talks collapse

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has come in for harsh criticism following the breakdown of talks over the EU budget.

    Blair staunchly defended the UK's EU budget rebate

    The UK's flat-out refusal to back down on its defence of its rebate from the EU budget attracted severe recriminations on Saturday.

    Twitching with anger, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who holds the EU's presidency, could barely conceal his ire towards Britain for blocking a deal on the budget, which he had longed hoped to secure at the two-day summit.

    While not naming Britain, Juncker accused London of intentionally scuttling his attempts to strike a compromise on the budget by calling for a broad rethink of the bloc's finances in a late stage of negotiations.

    "Those who asked in the last minute for an overhaul of the budget structures knew very well that it was impossible to get an agreement about an entire reorganisation among 25 countries," he said.

    France and Germany, whom Juncker said made efforts to compromise, were also quick to attack Britain for the failure of the talks while the Dutch were also in the firing line for their determination to pay less into the budget.

    British defiance

    German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder put the talks' failure down to the "the inflexible stance of the British and the Dutch", while French President Jacques Chirac said: "I deplore the fact that the United Kingdom refused to contribute a reasonable and equitable share of the expenses of enlargement."

    The European press seized on Blair's refusal to budge on the rebate as the source of the talks' collapse.

    "When I heard one after the other, all the new member countries each poorer than the other, say that in the interest of reaching an agreement they would be ready to renounce some of their financial demands, I was ashamed"

    Jean-Claude Juncker,
    Luxembourg Prime Minister

    French newspaper L'Union, based in Reims, east of Paris, said the British leader was "intransigent and intractable", calling him a "petulant, tight-fisted Labourite" who was dressed "in a Thatcherite suit in the worst-possible taste".

    Seeking to deflect criticism that he sank the talks, Blair insisted: "We were not alone at the table." British officials said four of the 24 other EU member states - Finland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden - joined Britain in opposing the EU spending plans for 2007-13.

    Visibly furious at a late-night news conference, the UK prime minister

     went on the offensive, arguing that the rebate was not a selfish money grab but a correction necessary to balance the farm subsidies that flow far more generously to France and other continental countries than to Britain.

    He said he would happily give up the cheque - worth about $5.5 billion a year - if the union cuts its agricultural payments, which he says reflect priorities that are out of sync with the modern world.

    New members bitter

    Meanwhile, the EU's new member states were left with a bitter view of the bloc they joined only a little more than a year ago after they offered to resolve the deadlock by scaling back their demands in the last minute in the face of richer member countries' bickering.

    The talks' failure has driven the
    EU further into crisis

    Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza said: "If, when they get home, Messrs Blair, Chirac and Balkenende boast of having defended their country's interests, we will not applaud them. They have done it at the expense of a common Europe."

    Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka, unimpressed with the "egoism" that countries tried to protect their national interests, said that "what we badly need in Europe is leadership".

    The EU newcomers' offer to make sacrifices in the face of the older members' squabbling left Juncker deeply troubled.

    "When I heard one after the other, all the new member countries each poorer than the other, say that in the interest of reaching an agreement they would be ready to renounce some of their financial demands, I was ashamed," he said.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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