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Blair calls for European change, targets agricultural subsidies

BERLIN—British Prime Minister Tony Blair fired another salvo Thursday in the ongoing verbal slugfest over a united Europe's future, telling the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, that Europe must change or it will fail.

In a blast at the French, Blair, who'll assume the presidency of the European Union for six months in July, said the EU must invest more in technology and less in agriculture. France depends heavily on agricultural subsidies from the EU.

"This is not a time to accuse those who want Europe to change of betraying Europe," he said. "It is a time to recognize that only by change will Europe recover its strength, its relevance, its idealism and therefore its support amongst the people."

For the past week, Blair and his fellow European leaders have sniped at one another over Europe's direction, after a summit meeting that all 25 EU member nations attended failed to agree on a long-term budget.

Since then, French President Jacques Chirac has called Blair's vision of Europe "pathetic and tragic" and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has accused Blair and those who agree with him of having "rejectionist attitudes."

Earlier this week, a Chirac confidante and EU minister, Catherine Colonna, accused Britain and its supporters of selfishness.

"France was not responsible for what happened," she said. "Someone did not want to abide by the spirit of solidarity."

The rancor stems from a hotly debated budget for the EU, expected to total about $120 billion a year. The French insist that Britain give up the rebate it receives on its annual EU contribution, negotiated 20 years ago when its economy was in a slump.

The British refuse to do so, saying they'll renegotiate the rebate only if the EU agrees to cut agricultural supports, which account for 40 percent of EU spending and benefit France more than any other nation.

Currently, France and Britain each contribute about $18.3 billion annually to the EU's budget. The EU spends about $7.3 billion in Britain, including $4.9 billion in farm supports. France receives about $15.8 billion from the EU, including $12.7 billion in farm subsidies.

The fight comes after the rejection by French and Dutch voters of a proposed EU constitution, which many in Europe think underscored deep dissatisfaction with the march toward European unity.

In Germany, Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic politician who's expected to challenge Schroeder for the chancellorship in elections in September, sided this week with Blair's call for economic reform. The newspaper Berliner Zeitung agreed Thursday in an editorial. "Blair is right," the paper said.

Dutch EU expert Rob Boudewijn noted that Chirac, weakened politically by his countrymen's rejection of the constitution, for which he'd campaigned, has little room to negotiate on farm subsidies.

"Right now, he's in a lose-lose position, which makes it very difficult for anyone in the EU to win," Boudewijn said.

Iain Begg, an economist and an expert on European integration at the Europe Institute at the London School of Economics, said Blair's fight with Chirac fit with a 500-year-old Anglo-Franco notion of bugging each other. He noted that Blair is in a stronger position than Chirac, who is "only finding friends these days when he looks in the mirror."

But in the end, he said, Europe must find a compromise if the EU is to survive. He said an insistence that all countries should get as much from the EU as they paid in would defeat the idea of a unified continent.

"The benefits of membership far outweigh the costs," he said. "It would be a shame to forget that."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tony Blair

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