Drift and indecision have been the fundamental characteristics of the British EU Presidency
The Summit at Hampton Court was everything I had warned it would be. A talking shop.
First, the Prime Minister downgraded the event to one day.
He then constructed an agenda that was thin on specifics and avoided all the major and pressing issues facing the European Union.
And, finally, amazingly, he decided there would be no communiqué.
Hardly the hallmarks of a Presidency and Prime Minister leading the agenda and shaping the future. I am actually surprised that the Presidency has anything at all to report to us today from this summit. At least, however, this Parliament is receiving a report, something that Prime Minister Blair failed to give the British House of Commons in the aftermath of the event.
This Council was a wasted opportunity.
Europe needs direction on economic reform. Instead, the Presidency produced a couple of discussion papers written by academics - and even these were not discussed at Hampton Court.
Europe needs direction on reforming the so-called 'social model'. Again, all we had were a few worthy discussion papers.
Europe needs direction on making it more flexible and responsive. And yet the fundamental issue of what to do following the rejection of the Constitution was not even on the table for discussion. So, no leadership there either.
Europe also needs direction on its future financing. There are serious issues here - not least the question of the British rebate. But, the Presidency continues to avoid the matter and so the drift continues. If, as the Presidency has promised, they are making efforts to reach an outcome at the December Council, we will look very carefully to see whether Mr Blair has ditched his previous commitments on protecting the British rebate. Mr Blair originally said the rebate was fully justified. I hope the Foreign Secretary will repeat that pledge today.
Transparency and openness is another issue the Presidency said it was keen to do something about. Recently, I called for meetings of the Council to be held in public when it is operating in its legislative capacity. Mr Blair says he wants to see progress on this. I challenge the Presidency today to implement such a procedure before its term of office ends and look forward to the Council's answer on this matter at question time following this debate.
I want also to mention the Court of Auditors Report on the EU Accounts for 2004 which were published earlier this week. For the eleventh year in succession, the Court has been unable to give a 'statement of assurance' on the accounts. This is a running sore and one that does enormous damage to the standing of the EU. Last week, Ministers at ECOFIN had the opportunity to reduce the potential for fraud and waste by accepting a proposal to give Member States responsibility for signing off EU funds dispersed at national level. They declined the chance. The Presidency missed a golden opportunity to restore some credibility to the way the EU spends taxpayers' money and they funked it. I call upon the Presidency to take action on this as a matter of urgency.
Drift and indecision have been the fundamental characteristics of the British Presidency. Indeed, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, speaking on the Presidency said "Silence reigns. We do not have information". President, I have to agree with this analysis!
The lack of any substantive progress on most of the dossiers in Mr Blair's European in-tray is a telling commentary on the state of the Presidency as it approaches the end game. I urge the Presidency, even at this late hour, to show some leadership on the budget, the reform of the social agenda, the urgent need to tackle the competitive challenges from India and China - and on what kind of Europe it envisages post the failure of the Constitution.
Hampton Court provided no evidence that the Presidency and particularly the Prime Minister have a strategy. He gives every appearance of drifting from summit to summit - unable or incapable of providing the kind of leadership we British Conservatives called for in June. Let us hope that the "Last Chance Saloon" at the forthcoming Brussels summit will demonstrate that my disappointment with the British Presidency is misplaced.