Blair returns to European Parliament

British Prime Minister Tony Blair returns to the European Parliament four months after winning over the sceptical assembly with his vision for Europe, having achieved little yet of real substance as EU president since the failed summit in June threw the EU into crisis.

He will face questioning from an assembly demanding to know what he has done to resolve the bitter row over the EU's long-term budget, blocked notably by Britain's refusal to surrender its jealously guarded rebate.

The lawmakers might also want to know what has become of the "period of reflection" about Europe's future, after French and Dutch voters rejected the EU's first-ever constitution last year.

His eagerly awaited speech in Strasbourg, to be given alongside Britain's Minister for Europe Douglas Alexander yesterday afternoon, comes on the eve of an informal EU summit at Hampton Court, near London.

The gathering was originally called to debate Europe's future but it is now meant to tackle the "challenges of globalization," and Blair's EU partners will be looking for clues of what that might mean in his address.

"What we hope to achieve at Hampton Court is an overall strategic consensus on the direction for Europe, and then to use that consensus to shape the hard work of the next two months," his spokesman said on Tuesday.

He said the 2007-2013 budget, also held up by France's refusal to renegotiate the Union's costly farm subsidy system, would not be discussed, but left for the next formal summit in Brussels in December.

In his Hampton Court invitation to EU heads of state and government, Blair wrote: "I know that a number of colleagues are concerned to know how the presidency plans to take forward the future financing negotiations."

"I will make every effort personally to achieve it by then, including through personal contact with each of you," he said.

Meanwhile, French President Jacques Chirac wants the EU to create a US$12 billion fund that could eventually double European spending on research to address what he called the urgent threat of international competition.

Chirac spelled out his proposal, an apparent conciliatory gesture to Blair, in a wide-ranging article published yesterday in newspapers across the EU before today's EU summit outside London.

In a sign of strains to come, Chirac was less accommodating on other issues that have divided EU leaders in the past, Britain's EU budget rebate and proposals to cut generous farm subsidies that benefit French farmers, reports Taipei Times. I.L.