Richard North, 02/09/2005  

The first high-profile meeting of the British presidency has been a shambles, leaving foreign secretary Jack Straw embarrassed and the press corps fuming.

The meeting, of the General Affairs Council, was being held in Newport Gwent, although heaven knows why, when reporters racing against deadlines watched their stories disappear into the void as the high-tech communications network rigged up for their use crashed repeatedly.

This gave Reuters a delicious opportunity to report a "visibly pained" Straw telling the final news conference: "I am embarrassed about it. I am very sorry about it, all right?" adding, "As soon as I leave this briefing... I am going to find the people I think are responsible and encourage them to deal with it and to offer them some career advice."

This, however, had only been one element of the debacle. Tempers had flared earlier on as journalists complained at what they called the heavy-handed security at the talks. One German journalist told how he was escorted out of the meeting and back to his hotel after he complained about the queues into the hotel hosting the meeting.

Other niggles abounded, with reporters baffled by occasional bans on smoking in some parts of the grounds outside the building, and miffed to find – crime of crimes - that even the sugar laid on for coffee had run out by midday.

This is the presidency that, incidentally, was going to settle the EU budget, reform the CAP, sort out Africa's problems and lead the negotiations on Turkey's accession. On this performance, however, Straw and his not-so-merry-men are not even fit to run a whelk stall.

But then, you knew that already.


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