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The EU Vanity Parade

By Tom Arbuthnott. Source: BBC Online

The Foreign Policy Centre's Europe Researcher considers the prospects of genuine progress at the Laeken Summit

The themes of the Laeken summit befit the majesty of its setting in the royal grounds of the Belgian kings: progress in all the major European projects of the moment are on the agenda.

Europe's ability to work together in foreign policy will take a step forward as the rapid reaction force officially comes into operation. The so-called area of freedom, security and justice will become more defined with the agreement of a number of measures, including a European arrest warrant and a common definition of terrorism. And there will be the grand proclamation of the Laeken declaration - a document establishing the guidelines for the "deeper and wider debate" about the future of Europe. This is expected to set up a new body, the Convention, which will comprise MPs, MEPs, government and European Commission representatives.

Unfortunately, in parallel with these worthy aims, there are also a number of national prestige issues that will be negotiated. There are no fewer than 10 decentralised agencies up for grabs - European institutions devoted to a particular area of research or policy, which are traditionally parceled out between the member states. This time round, they range from the EU Police College to the European Maritime Safety Agency. In the one-upmanship of European vanity, no member state can afford to be without one of these bodies. There is also one major job at stake, the presidency of the Convention on the Future of Europe, and three candidates lining up for it.

The genuine desire to see progress in Europe's ability to resolve problems that governments acting alone cannot answer is likely only to be achieved if these questions of national one-upmanship have been adequately satisfied along the way.

The result is normally the European compromise: a grand declaration with an underlying web of negotiation and compromise. On foreign policy and justice policy, the usual combination of brinkmanship and peer group pressure has worked its magic. The rapid reaction force almost foundered against Turkey's refusal to allow the sharing of Nato assets. And the European arrest warrant was resisted until the last minute by the Italian Government.

However, the trade-off between prestige and practicality has not yet been resolved around the Convention on the future of Europe. It is an imaginative initiative, which aims to set up a whole new way for Europe to engage different constituencies in its debates. There is a chance that this method might provide a forum to explore the difference between what people expect from Europe and what they feel that they are getting from it.

The Convention's president will play a key role in this. A good candidate will drive the agenda forward, will stand up to the governments who want to push their own narrow agendas at the expense of the collective agenda, and will mediate the conflicting interests of the participants in the debate. So far so good. But who is the right candidate? And how will they be chosen?

Former French President Giscard d'Estaing, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari and former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato all want the job. However, Helsinki, Lille and Parma all want the European Food Authority. The French also want their man to take over at the European Central Bank next year, and the Italians already have their man as president of the European Commission. The Finns would prefer the permanence of the European Food Authority than the transitory benefits of a former politician in a position of influence. Each of the front-runners is therefore compromised by his own government. Some pundits suggest the best way through this amoral maze is to appoint a compromise candidate, Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, who is both unavailable and unwilling to take on the job.

One thing is sure. The Laeken declaration will sound good, and will be proclaimed against a suitably grand historical background. What is less sure is how the declaration lives up to its presentation.