| Non-committal colleagues
Europe, the political as opposed to geographical entity, has dominated the British media over the last few weeks, excluding only the brief interlude when Sir Bob Geldof drummed up support for his Live8 concerts for Africa. The future of Europe, and of European agricultural policy in particular, has a direct impact on African and other developing countries, but we will look at those issues after the G8 next month and after Sir Bob's concerts. In the meantime, we are forced to watch while 'Old Europe' and old European politicians tear great rifts in the concept of a united continent, reducing it once again to a battlefield, albeit so far a purely political one.
Any blood that is spilt because of these events will be that of the unseen poor whose needs disappear under the weight of furious rhetoric from European leaders, taking their own and their population's eyes off the goal of greater prosperity for all through their united efforts. We are all aware that any union of different cultures is a difficult one to maintain. In India, it has been hard enough to retain the unity of different states, let alone different sovereign countries. However, the original goal for a united Europe still exists and European unity, however loose the links, is worth fighting for. It is important for all European countries, both the established members and the hopeful newcomers. It is also the most positive forum for joined-up thinking and policy towards Africa and other poor areas of the world, and one potentially strong enough to resist the blanket bombing of all countries by American thought and culture.
In Europe this month, we have seen the masks of polished urbanity cast off as politicians show their true faces and take increasingly jingoistic and populist lines. I noticed with interest the reports of L.K. Advani's resignation after his attempted repackaging as a moderate failed in the face of hardline Hindutva elements in the Bharatiya Janata Party. I am sure he is a genuine moderate compared with those extremists, but generally changing your image to fit a new picture seems to be ultimately unsuccessful. As the veneer of 'all for one and one for all' has dramatically slipped this month in Europe, our prime minister, Tony Blair, lately much maligned by us all, appears to have reverted to his original face and it is altogether more personable than the one we have recently beheld.
I am in a minority of people in the United Kingdom who believe that however badly drawn the European constitution, it was better by far to accept it and work it out from the inside than to throw it out and end up with the potential collapse of the whole European system. Its rejection in referenda by the Dutch and the French is much to be regretted. Blair has come out determined still to make Europe work, albeit not according to the 'fortress Europe' model, which has been so determinedly supported by Chirac in France and Schroeder in Germany.
On the subject of Chirac, I must admit a personal fascination with the man. I wonder if he has modelled his political self on the great Talleyrand, failing perhaps in the matter of personal regard outweighing regard for his country. One may be appalled by the corruption and amorality that surrounds him, but still be transfixed by the machinations and transformations of a cold-blooded, consummate politician.
Blair is going to have a tough time during the British presidency of the Union, trying to turn the tide of scepticism in Europe, but currently it is hard to see him as other than on the side of the right. Chirac's domestic star is beginning to wane as he runs out of new personae and new domestic social and economic failures come to the fore. The memories of his popular stand against the Iraq war are fading fast on the home front too. Schroeder is sliding down the popularity polls in Germany and faces an election in September in which Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union is favoured to become the new chancellor. Blair has domestic issues with the EU over the British rebate, which have yet to be resolved, but he has shown himself as the committed European he professes to be and one who sees a most important social dimension in addition to economic considerations.
His speech to the European Parliament at the start of the UK presidency met with a mixed response, but his positive view that the recent fissures and upheavals should be used as a beginning for essential and timely reforms is a sensible one. The remaining question is whether he can deliver in so short a time as the allotted six-month presidency and in the face of non-committal or outrightly opposed European colleagues.
There is no doubt that the common agricultural policy needs to be brought up to date. This will not be the first time it has been changed and reformed. It has remained a work in progress, but its historical foundations in the incentives for farmers in the immediate 1945 post-war period of rationing have always been reappraised in the face of strong opposition from succeeding generations of those farmers, particularly in France. The original policy of subsidizing agricultural output through price support rapidly made Europe self-sufficient in food, but has persistently distorted EU and world markets. This year, the implementation of the policy-changes of the last decade has changed the system to one of direct subsidy to farmers. Farmers are encouraged and incentivized to use environment-friendly methods and promote food safety and quality.
European farmers receive subsidies of about 50 billion euros a year, just under half the budget of the entire EU. Subsidies are supposed to go only to independent farmers; but there is a view that, as in India, large landowners and agro-businesses scoop the cream off the milk. According to the UK think-tank, the Foreign Policy Centre, the biggest UK payment in 2004 went to the massive sugar-refiner, Tate and Lyle.
The row between Blair and Chirac centres on the intention of the former to push cuts in subsidies and of the latter to oppose them. The additional thorn in the side of mainland European leaders is the ongoing British rebate on EU contributions, won by Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Her argument was simply that the UK took fewer benefits from the EU, and should therefore receive a commensurate rebate on its share of contributions. In his efforts to find a compromise, Blair has moved to a more flexible position on the rebate, but this is unlikely to make friends for him at home unless he can pull the rabbit out of the hat by finding a new way forward through the thorns of European budget policy.
Interestingly, his greatest support at home has come from Chancellor Gordon Brown, considered to be more eurosceptic than the prime minister but increasingly vocal on social issues both in Europe and in developing countries. In his annual Mansion House speech in the City of London, he issued a 'reform or stagnate' warning to our European partners and compared the creation of jobs in the UK with the growing unemployment in mainland Europe. He called for the EU to be more 'outward looking' and looked to a future where farm subsidies were reformed in favour of the real needs of the populations of contemporary European nations.
It will be interesting and somewhat nerve-wracking to see if the UK presidency can succeed in forwarding essential changes to the EU. Overnight successes seem improbable but progress may be made. The pan-European Eurovision Song Contest last month showed the disfavour with which Old Europe is viewed by its new neighbours from the former Soviet bloc. The competition is taken extremely seriously in all the contesting countries except the UK, which, encouraged by the now traditional tongue-in-cheek commentary of our Irish comp're, has always considered it a bit of a joke. Increasingly though, and however pointlessly, it has become a forum for paying off old scores.
The message, this year, was loud and clear ' the new states of Europe don't like us. They voted for their new allies and traditional friends and neighbours, not for us. At the moment, young states still need our systems and our wealth and this is unlikely to change very fast. However, there is always room over time for new alliances and new competitors if the old ones, reduced by stagnation and bickering, can no longer deliver on their promises.