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Wednesday, 30 October, 2002, 17:11 GMT
Blair unrepentant over French row
Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac in Brussels
Blair had "vigorous exchanges" with Chirac
Tony Blair said he made no apologies for arguing the UK's corner at EU summits following his recent spat with French president Jacques Chirac over farm subsidies.

The prime minister told MPs reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), resisted by Mr Chirac, were "not just a British priority but important for Europe".

Too much money was being spent on the CAP, Mr Blair said, often in an inefficient way, and it had to change.

His comments came as France announced an Anglo-French summit, which was planned for December, would now be held in the New Year.

The meeting was postponed on Tuesday, in the wake of angry exchanges between Mr Blair and Mr Chirac at last weekend's EU summit.

EU enlargement

Mr Blair was reportedly angered by a backroom deal struck between Mr Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, to perpetuate high levels of farm spending under the CAP for another decade.

Mr Blair went on to secure a "mid term" review of the CAP, which consumes nearly half of an EU budget expected to be worth roughly 98 billion euros in 2003.

But the Franco-German deal means a proposed reform of farm policy is effectively on hold to 2007.

The UK believes enlargement of the EU from 15 to 25 member states in 2004 will be impossible without fundamentally changing the way farm subsidies are distributed.

But France, which is the biggest beneficiary of the CAP, wants the UK's 2bn a year EU rebate cut instead.

Developing countries

Mr Blair told MPs at Prime Minister's Question Time: "If we look at the money we are spending in the European Union, we could spend it in a better way if so much wasn't still being spent on the Common Agricultural Policy in often a very inefficient way, even for the farming industry."

Mr Blair also wants to cut subsidies in order to create a level playing field for developing countries trying to enter European markets.

He said: "It is extremely important that when we have the world trade round we make a good offer from the European Union for the developing world.

"These are the poorest countries in the world, they desperately need access to our markets and we should not let them down."

Euro warning

Liberal Democrat chairman Mark Oaten warned Mr Blair that unless the UK joined the euro, "Germany and France will continue to dominate".

He added: "You will have more summits cancelled and this country will lack influence."

Mr Blair said the UK would hold a referendum when the economic conditions were right.

The prime minister also declined an invitation from Labour MP Tony Wright to clarify "how rude" he had been to Mr Chirac during clashes at last week's summit.

Reform 'still on agenda'

Earlier, former Europe Minister Peter Hain insisted Anglo-French relations were "as good as ever" despite the row.

And he said reform of the "highly protectionist, bloated and inefficient" CAP was "still on the agenda".

Mr Hain, who retains a key role on the convention shaping the future of Europe, said the UK "shared a common agenda" with France, including a commitment to the sovereignty of nation states.

Franco-German axis

But his words came as French ministers hailed the farm subsidies deal as a renaissance in Franco-German ties that traditionally drive EU integration.

France's European Affairs Minister Noelle Lenoir called the deal an "historic watershed" and a renewal of the Franco-German axis.

Mrs Lenoir said France and Germany would work closely on a new blueprint for the EU as it prepares to expand its membership to central and eastern Europe.

"France will make a joint contribution, notably with its German partners, and others if possible," she said.

The BBC's Jon Sopel
"This is a snub and there's no other way to describe it"

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