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Laeken's Lows

By Tom Arbuthnott. Source: BBC Online

Tom Arbuthnott looks back over the Laeken Summit with a critical eye.

"I refused to get involved in horse-trading," said the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, as he looked back on the disarray of the Laeken Summit, supposedly the high-point of Belgium's presidency of the European Union. Two days of negotiation led to some historic advances, notably in the setting up of a convention to negotiate Europe's future. However, the impression left was one of disarray and disunity, a high-minded Europe brought down by the low-minded national aspirations of some of its constituent members.

The pettiest arguments were over the location of 13 decentralised agencies of the European Union. These are specialist bodies, devoted to tracking a given policy area. In theory, they should streamline the Union by providing a locus for excellence in that particular area. In fact, they provide a vehicle for national prestige: no self-respecting member state should be left out in the cold without an agency of its own.

The package deal - clearly no horse-trading here - developed by the Belgian presidency saw no fewer than four of these, of varying importance, go to France. This was resisted by the smaller member states, who had already seen the choice of Valery Giscard d'Estaing as president of the convention foisted on them by a gang of big states - France, Germany, Italy, Britain and Spain. No decision could be made, and all was postponed until the next summit in Barcelona in March. Clearly a key decision, then.

The same proposed deal would have set up the new European Food Safety Authority in Helsinki. This, though, did not allow for the intransigence of Silvio Berlusconi. Mr Berlusconi cut his teeth negotiating in business, where diplomatic niceties are treated in a rather different way. His claim that the Finns were unsuitable because of their lack of affinity with prosciutto may not have been of the same order as his recent claims about the superiority of the Christian world over the Islamic: but they reinforced the atmosphere of pork-barrelling that dominated the later stages of the summit.

There was one decision, though, taken at Laeken where the bargaining process may come to be regretted - Mr Valery Giscard d'Estaing's appointment.

The convention is a forward-looking initiative, and, if handled right, could provide the answer to the question that has bedevilled Europe for 50 years -: how to connect to the citizens and engage all constituencies in a wide-ranging debate about a collective political future. The convention needs to capture the zeitgeist, and really make people believe that this is a way that everyone can have a stake in developing Europe's future.

Mr Giscard d'Estaing might do a very good managerial job, but the appointment of a septuagenarian politician, retired for 20 years, and in power during a particularly sclerotic period of European policymaking in the 1970s, does not necessarily send out the right symbols. As Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama put it, he comes across as "a personality of the past, not of the future." That said, none of the candidates were particularly beguiling. They were all of one stamp - ex-premiers with integrationist hearts. And now, thanks to the Laeken compromise, there are three of them as a Holy Trinity managing the debate on Europe's future.

It also leads to a rather worrying thought: if the more sceptical states - Britain, Scandinavia and Austria - are prepared to allow the convention to be chaired in this way, how seriously will they treat the outcome of the convention around June 2003? There may be trouble ahead.

Laeken showed to fine effect the paradox of the summit system. The success stories are dull - it is only the stories of disunity that are interesting. The powers that do feel that stories of disunity harm the European project, so do their very best to cloak these problems in a mirage of unity, a la Verhofstadt. In fact, though, it is possible that what the European Union needs is a more open political culture. Until there is a culture of opposition within the Union, we will be left with the mixture of above-the-counter pompousness and under-the-counter disarray that have characterised the last few days in Laeken.