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Europe diary: Blair's 'weakness'
24 November 2005

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell discusses Brussels' view of divisions in the UK cabinet, Hungary's borders and some unfortunate doubles entendres.

The diary is published every Thursday.


There's near-universal dismay in Brussels because of the perception here that a weakened Tony Blair can't and won't deliver on the European Union budget. Many of those involved think Blair is Gordon Brown's prisoner and that the chancellor doesn't want a deal done. Even those who think a deal can be done say the negotiations won't be about figures but finding a face-saving formula that would enable Tony Blair to partially surrender the British rebate.

Austrian FM Ursula Plassnik
Austrian FM Ursula Plassnik expects to inherit the budget burden
But it's not easy to see how Mr Blair could sell this kind of deal in Britain. The British media has decided their chosen narrative is "the decline and eventual fall of Tony Blair" and giving up the rebate won by Thatcher would certainly make a juicy next chapter: it's presumably one he has to stop being written. It seems the Austrians have given up on him completely. It's reported in their press that the foreign minister has told MEPs that their priority will be getting a budget deal, when the Austrian presidency starts on 1 January 2006.


I've been in Hungary to find out how a failure to agree the budget would hit planned projects, filming sewage flowing into Budapest's river. I avoid the script line: "Poo in the Danube..." My last filming trip there must have been about 20 years ago. Although communism was crumbling it was still difficult persuading people to talk. Not so now. Our taxi driver, newspaper on his knees as he negotiates Budapest's horrendous rush hour, reads aloud: "The French, the Germans, the Americans say Hungary is an economic miracle." "Idiots!" he says, before launching into the traffic and a tirade about the current government.


I ask the driver if he's noticed any differences since Hungary joined the EU last year. "No borders," he replies instantly. Strictly speaking, borders with Hungary are still meant to exist, but when I ask a senior government minister the same question, expecting him to talk about the economy, he gives the same answer. "Open borders. And your British border guards don't look at me so suspiciously," he says. Actually, for me one of the most noticeable consequences of living within the Schengen area is the shock of having to show a passport when I travel to places like Estonia and Britain, at the edge of empire.


My what a witty lot you are! Thanks for all the Voltaire-inspired aphorisms on the EU.

I couldn't make any political comment, but as a reporter I feel "Institutional intricacy illuminated by frequent factionalism" might do the trick.


Dockers demonstrating in Brussels
The dockers... They don't want crews to unload their own cargos
A colleague has spotted me making an outrageous slur on those less than keen on the EU. In an internal BBC training video, I try to make the point that the idea that British people who don't like the EU are hostile to all things European is well out of date. I say something like: "I know plenty of people who enjoy a Weissbier but dislike the European Union." Unfortunately, subtitling renders the drink as "Vice beer". Perhaps the subtitlers should join the dockers protesting outside the Council of Ministers building in Brussels with the slogan, "No self handling".

Please use the form below to send in your comments on issues raised in the diary:

Scrap the system of EU contributions altogether. EU subsidies for the new members are a gravy train for corrupt bureaucrats. The new member states don't need the money so desperately as some would like you to believe. Let the French subsidise their own farmers but from their own budget! We want to invest our money into education system. In my view, the UK should hold on to the rebate as long as CAP exists. If there is no willingness to reform the CAP, the UK should reconsider staying in the EU.
Jaro, Slovakia

I am willing to bet my "in doubt" public sector pension that Mr Blair will find a way to surrender part if not all of our rebate in the next two years. We are after all talking about a man who has aspirations of being the President of the EU.
Don Ransonl, Plymouth England

Can someone explain,why whenever the EU precidency changes, each subsequent president tries to come up with another fantastic policy change to try to outdo the previous presidents. Surely there must come a time where there is nothing left to meddle with!!!
Ray, Bishop Auckland, Co Durham

When the continental US broke from the UK, the cry was "to taxation without representation", we in the UK (and the rest of europe) should say "no taxation without auditation".
Sandy McKay, Eastriggs, Scotland, UK of GB & NI

As a farmer, it seems to me that the key question is: do we still need some food from Europe or is it better for European citizens to source it cheaper from abroad? Have you heard about the famous "supply and demand" law? All the food quantities missing after removing the CAP will create a supply shortage, so the "consumer citizen" will pay what the "tax payer citizen" will have saved! Do you know that the world's wheat inventory before every harvest is no more than a few consumption weeks? That includes the production of these "inefficient" European farmers! "Just in time" industrial practice does not work with mother nature. We have to take care not to think of food supply like the supply of socks. If we have trouble with the quantities or qualities of these two kinds of goods the consequences are just not the same!

Is it really prudent to entrust food supply to some countries which receive an average 350mm of rainfall a year, but some times 150 mm and other times 650 mm? Just imagine what could happen to the world food supply if mother nature decide to activate drought twice a year, once in the northern hemisphere and one the southern hemisphere. We have an appointment with agriculture three times a day, every day, so we have to take care not to break our toy as spoilt children could do!
jean charles renaudat, Chateaumeillant France

There's a wonderful piece of hypocrisy being practised in British politics at the moment. On the one hand, we want to end CAP subsidies. On the other hand, senior politicians are advancing arguments in favour of nuclear power ON THE GROUNDS OF SECURITY OF SUPPLY. So, if we weren't able to import power then we'd be in trouble, but it's ok to have no secure food supply? The one good thing about subsidising French farmers is that if all of the meteorologically (thank you Monsieur Renaudat) or politically unstable countries we buy our food from go to the wall, then at least we'll buy able to import food from les francais. It's all very well complaining that subsidies damage the third world - so do the wars, droughts, famines, plagues and assorted other horsemen of the apocalypse. Guarantee me bread from Africa next Tuesday and I'll vote to end CAP. Until then, I'll get back to the reactor I'm building.
Gus, London

It worries me deeply that when reading Mr. Mardell's article on the decline and fall of Mr. Blair my overriding impression was that of a nation's politics being directed by media editors. Specifically, I was left with the feeling that the media has set in motion an agenda of "news future" and one can almost imagine the headlines being planned weeks, if not months or years in advance.
Lyndon Wright, Joane, Portugal

Like most french people, I agree that President Chirac is a pain in the neck. But I would also like to point out that unlike other countries benefiting by the CAP, France gives a big part of its share to subsidise fruit imported from Africa and the Caribean in an effort to help sustain the economy of those countries. Promoting free trade is a way to give up helping Africa. By the way, do you know who is the number one beneficiary of the CAP? The queen of england!
Carlos, Paris (France)

The problem in Europe is not the British rebate, but the CAP. If the British government cannot scrap the CAP because of opposition from the other members, then the price for giving up the rebate should be the non-payment by Britain into community funds. We could buy our food far more cheaply from the third world benefitting both us and them. The CAP is a wonderful way of turning honest farmers into fraudsters. When is the French government going to get out of the pocket of its farmers? We need another Thatcher to fight for not only Britain's interests, but those of the third world, some of whom starve from the effects of the CAP.
Martin Porter, London UK

The debate about the future of the CAP is false, because the CAP has no future. No matter what the politicians say, it is dying by itself. In the whole EU, the number of young farmers is dramatically decreasing. The majority of the young people in the EU don't want to work in a farm. When you go to the countryside, you can only see old people, very old people most of the time. In about ten, maybe fifteen years, there won't be farmers in the whole EU. It's only a question of age and demography.
Emilio Fernández Castro, Albacete (Spain)

So according to Mark Mardell Europe has given up on Tony Blair. A little strange then that the new German Chancellor heads straight for London after her election. It might add to the BBC's post-Hutton campaign against the Prime Minister, but it hardly holds water as serious political comment! Tony Blair has put Britain in a key position in the development of a more realistic European Union. Our partners may not always agree with him but they certainly respect him.
Andrew Govier, Wellington,England

Perhaps now Dr Merkel is bringing a slice of realism to German politics, both politicians and the people of Germany will ask why they should be paying so much into the EU budget. My view is that the CAP should be scrapped immediately and the same money put into environmental work which will be spent where it is needed - in the former Soviet states, including the eastern Leander of Germany where Dr Merkel comes from, and who were our bulwark against communism and occupied not for 5 years but 50. Scrapping the CAP will immediately remove the need for any rebate to anyone and by moving the spending to the environment - perhaps to be scaled down over some years - we will be doing much more good in Europe and put pressure on the US to scrap their massive subsidies as well.
John, Manchester, UK

The French have a point in that the current CAP regime was only set recently. If this was the single biggest sticking point to the EU budget - and world trade, according to some - then why did EU governments, notably the UK, not insist on more movement from the French when it was being negotiated? The UK rebate, on the other hand, is no longer justifiable since the UK is far more prosperous than when Thatcher negotiated it. I find it increasingly hard to see through the partisan reporting of such issues and reach a balanced view of what's really going on. However, it seems undeniable that the UK must give up at least part of its rebate for the sake of freeing up funds to the poorer member states from Eastern and Central Europe that joined last year. At stake is the sizeable international good feeling that the UK generated by being one of only three states to allow people from the new EU states to work here.
Alan Crawford, Edinburgh, UK

Escape from reality is a characteristic of most junkies and France has been "main-lining" on hard subsidies for so long that there are bound to be severe withdrawal symptoms. It seems that France has a hallucination that she can call the tune and yet demand that someone else pays the piper. Whether they be the citizens of other countries of Europe, preferably the British, or the third world farmers Chirac doesn't care so long as the French can enjoy social benefits and protection well beyond that which the French economy has actually earned.
John Galpin, Cookham, UK

My view is that Chirac is wrong in asking Britain to give up its rebate while France is hanging on to their agricultural subsidies. It is unjust and moraly wrong.Chirac should stop frustrating Tony Blair from carrying out his plans in the EU.If he wants to be diplomatic then he is most welcomed.
modestus, essex England

To me: - French flexibility on agriculture equates to getting rid of most CAP subsidies, - which equates to getting rid of the British rebate - which equates to getting rid of US and Japanese farm subsidies - which equates to Doha / WTO agreement - which equates to greater prosperity for all The Developing World is crying out for Trade Fairness, but I fear that French influence will scupper the whole lot! :-(
Justin, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Thank god for Gordon Brown, he's the poor worlds best hope that the EU will be forced to abandon agricultural subsidies. They won't listen to moral arguments but if people like Brown refuse to stump up the cash then they may be forced to play fair.
Amoroso Gombe, Nairobi, Kenya.

Perhaps we should give up the rebate but it not happen until the mess of the payments given under the CAP have been sorted out. We need to remove the incentives to over produce food and treat farmers like those in other industries and give developing countries to develope their own agricultural sectors. Such a move would give more money to the environmental sectors and improve the wildlife value of Europe's farming landscapes.
John S, Bath

While the British rebate is a bit of a bother, it's not the key issue in the budget... Farm subsidies and how much of a bite they take out of the EU budget are. 1st world farm subsidies are also a global issue, as they hve a major impact on the developing world on a number of levels.
Arttu Tolonen, Helsinki, Finland

Why should Tony Blair deliver on the EU budget and give up our rebate? Why do we continue to pour billions into a corrupt organisation.Better to get out and control our own budget.
mark starr, worcester

The CAP means we pay more for our food in EU than outside. Blair has a point- why should we continue to subsidise (mostly) French Farmers or rather BIG French farmers? I have lived in Spain several times and now living in France and the one thing I can tell British farmers is that meat in both these countries is inferior to British Beef, Pork and above all, Lamb. but on the other hand their wine is infinitely better than ours!!
Clive Cunningham, Libourne, France

There clearly needs to be some form of reform on both sides of the fence. Britain cannot hold onto the rebate forever and France should not demand that the CAP should be kept whilst demanding Britain should give up the rebate. I recall a comment by a French politician as saying that the decision of Britain to hold onto the rebate defies logic!. This is not a fair comment in my opinion and this comment was made to divert attention from the failed 'Oui' campaign for ratifying the new European constitution that the Chirac regime conducted. We need to find a common ground on these issues. I also applaud the efforts of Gordon Brown when it comes to the moral arguments and fair trade for all, especially developing countries.
Ndi, London, England

True politics is about putting up ladders for other people to climb down. For Tony Blair to pull the budget miracle, he needs ladders for both Jacques Chirac and Gordon Brown. He's got a ladder for Gordon Brown, (he could resign) but the French? after they way they got stitched over the european referendum, that would be political genius
Michael Shaw, Sheffield, UK

It is true that the CAP is spending a lot of money on EU farmers, but how would those people survive otherwise? It will take many years to divert their activities from farming to services or production of another kind. It is easier saying it than applying it. We should start the process, sooner than later; However, we must be cautious and slow implementing such change. As for the UK rebate, the factors that existed when it was decided are no longer there. It must start flowing more money in the EU budget, otherwise "pack it up" and leave. This way the UK government can control their own budget and deal directly with their patrons, the US. We want to be Europeans and not the 51st state of the US. We want them as allies but unlike the UK we don't want them as our puppet masters.
Yannis, Thessaloniki, Greece

I think Yannis has missed the point. The UK is the second biggest net contributor to the EC even with the rebate. (BBC figures) Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal are net benefactors with the Spanish receiving almost as much as the Germans put in. Time for them all to become contributors to collect money to assist the new members. On that basis I would forgo the rebate. His comment would be fine if all the money went on the farmers but it patently does not. How would Greece survive if we left with our contributions, Greece cannot be one of the Beggars of Europe for ever.
Peter, Portsmouth Uk

Ah well, Weissbier as Vice Beer. Nice one! I suppose you could just be pedantic and say Weizenbier, as then nobody could make any mistakes then. And the EU otherwise? Empire Undoubtedly, but also Endlessly Uphill, and Even Utopia, possibly, although with the Exit Unidentified, it does sometimes rather feel like Ealing Updated; still, perhaps one day the beast will become Everyman's Union and cease to be what is perceived as an Expensive Usurper of national rights.
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

There is no beer but GUINESS.
takeo kubo, kagoshima japan

I have just returned from Budapest, Hungry and I feel there is still a great almost inbread fear in the people there,(From Big Bad Wolf Perhaps).The people there are very nice however there is a greyish glumness about this beautiful city.When a friend waited at Hotel reception for a credit card clearence the receptionist when questioned as to the problem retorted,Ah well this is still Eastern Europe after all.East Europeans know change takes time and for Britian to give up any rebates France must give up its farm subsidies; and repay a lot of her ill gotten gains and stop whinging about the rest of Europe.
Sam McBurney, London

I was interested to see your slant on Hungarian borders, but am not sure that everyone is so confident. Did you see that President Traian Basescu of Romania, during an official visit to Paris on Tuesday announced his "Plan for Kosovo"? It looks uncannily like Serbia's - (No changes of borders only internal regional autonomy, etc) I wonder whether this is in any way linked to Hungarian minority ambitions in Romania? This is certainly a factor in Serbain internal politics and as you know after WW1 some 60% of Hungarians were left outside Hungary - many in Romania... A bit of Balkan deal-making in the wind perhaps?
Anon (Sorry!), United Nations Mission In Kosovo

Would have to agree about the absence of any economic 'miracle' in Hungary at present. The country's 80% tax and health insurance burden are crippling business, particularly activities on the periphery, such as language training of the kind that I was involved in in Budapest for the past 3 years. I have recently decamped to Slovakia for this reason. BTW- Anon's figure of 60% of hungarians left outside Hungary is only a slight exagerration- try around 33%. However, the point about Hungarian autonomy is a prescient one. Another might be that a lost Kosovo will become to the Serbs as Transylvania is to the Hungarians, even after 85 years.
Jonathan, Bratislava, Slovakia

About Hungary's economic miracle, it depends where you look it from. It may be less business "friendly" than Slovakia is these days but still it has attracted the most foreign direct investment per capita in the former Eastern Bloc bar Russia since the end of communism. Taxing is still high but unemployment is less than half of Slovakia's, income per capita is higher and social divide between the richest and poorest is much smaller. Looking at the nicely restored town centres of Prague and Bratislava and the decaying buildings of Budapest you might get a different impression. However, the Hungarian capital is much bigger a city than the other two combined to be restored overnight.

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