22nd Jan 2021

Britain takes over the EU's chair

  • Britain will be at the EU's helm until the end of this year (Photo: EUobserver)

The British presidency of the EU starts on Friday (1 July) in an atmosphere of high expectation following Tony Blair's strong calls in recent days for reform of the bloc.

This expectation will be coupled by a general curiosity to see how London handles being the negotiator primarily for Europe rather than for its national interests, given its on-off relationship with Brussels.

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Mr Blair's ambitious reform rhetoric has in part helped the British prime minister stem the negative criticism following the collapse of an EU summit two weeks ago, largely due to London intransigence over its annual rebate.

The whole debacle sparked a debate about Europe is just a free trade zone or about more political integration - giving Mr Blair his platform to launch his presidency.

But while there is general agreement that change is needed to make Europe more efficient, sceptics argue that the duration of one presidency - six months - will not produce many miracles.

And to push forward the most urgent issues on the table - such as the future EU budget or controversial internal market laws, Downing Street will need to work on its allies in the other European capitals.

EU budget first

To get some of his traditional supporters among the new member states from central and eastern Europe back on his side, Mr Blair will have to prove his willingness to move ahead with the budgetary talks.

These countries are set to be most affected by the delay in agreement on the next EU budget.

In a bid to convince his partners of his good will, the British leader has been suggesting that his country's refund from the common European coffers can go - as long as it is accompanied with the reform of the bloc's agricultural policy (CAP).

British media have reported that the UK officials are preparing for a direct trade-off between annual reductions in the British rebate and specific cuts in CAP spending.

Green light for business

Beside the budgetary negotiations, the British presidency wants to press ahead with a number of important laws.

Among them, the regulation of chemicals, the directive liberalising services and financial sector, and the working time directive are likely to spark the hottest debates.

At the same time, London wants to launch a review of the existing legislation, ensuring that it is not too burdensome for business.


Britain will also have its work cut out for it on enlargement issues. It strongly favours further enlargement of the bloc, also to Turkey, due to open EU negotiations on 3 October.

However, it will have to contend with opposition in some member states that want to make it more difficult for Ankara to start the talks. Its big test will be securing agreement among member state negotiating mandate for Turkey.

Britain's presidency of the EU will also have strong implications for Croatia, meant to open EU talks in March.

Despite its pro-enlargement stance, London has been one of the staunchest opponents of the country's launch of the entry talks so long as its fugitive war criminal has not been handed over to a UN tribunal. But countries such as Austria will not accept having talks with Turkey start before they start with Croatia.

Tony Blair's EU watch also coincides with a busy international agenda with a major UN meeting in September and World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December.

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