Laeken Summit:”Crowning glory” for Belgium or politics as usual?

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Series Details Vol.7, No.47, 20.12.01, p12-13
Publication Date 20/12/2001
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Date: 20/12/01

The final gathering of EU leaders in 2001 was both a shambles and a success, writes David Cronin

Two respected international newspapers gave such diverging assessments of Laeken in their post-summit editions that readers could be forgiven for thinking that they were reporting about two separate events.

According to The Wall Street Journal Europe, the entire gathering had been "quarrelsome and gaffe-prone". The Financial Times, on the other hand, reported how the EU had "opened a new chapter in its history" by agreeing a "far-reaching declaration on the future of Europe".

It is rare that a major EU summit can be described as both a shambles and a success.

But Laeken contained ingredients of both.

Commission chief Romano Prodi hailed the decision to set up a Convention involving more than 100 political representatives to draft the next revisions of the EU's treaties as the Belgian presidency's "crowning glory". He may have been resorting to hyperbole but few could disagree with the underlying sentiment.

German Socialist MEP Jo Leinen further underscored the move by pointing out that the Union's "constitutional process" will now be the responsibility of both legislature and executives because the Convention will boast members from national assemblies and the European Parliament as well as governments and the Commission. "For the past 50 years, it was only executives [that prepared treaties]," the leading Euro-federalist remarked.

But one piquant topic of conversation on the margins of the summit was how the chairman for this body, ex-French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, is unlikely to provide much inspiration for younger Europeans. His age (75) wouldn't attract such negative comments if he was known for presenting dynamic ideas. Dynamic, though, is not a word normally applied to the conservative politician, who hasn't held office for 20 years. Others have remarked on how his appointment is a classic "jobs for the boys" affair.

Theoretically, the decision to declare the EU's fledgling rapid reaction force "operational" was a significant achievement for the Belgian presidency. Yet it also had the elements of a fudge.

Brussels officials are already talking about the possibility that the 60,000-strong army could be deployed in Balkans peace-keeping missions in the not-so-distant future. Without question, that would be a quantum leap for supporters of the Union's common security policy.

The downside is that the force won't yet have the military muscle that many EU governments want it to have. Bickering between Greece and Turkey means that a final deal on its use of NATO facilities remains elusive, even if Ankara has withdrawn its long-held objections to an EU accord with the military alliance.

Foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he would like to see a permanent agreement reached within a "reasonable period of time" but could not be more specific about when this is likely to happen.

Everybody concurred that Louis Michel was guilty of the worst faux-pas at Laeken. Struggling not to lose his voice on Friday, Belgium's foreign minister claimed it was an historic day for the EU as all 15 states were "going to create unanimously a multinational force" to be deployed in Afghanistan. It was a "turning point" in European history, he declared.

It quickly emerged that the picture was quite different to the one Michel was painting. Although all states will be supporting the force, only eight had already agreed to send troops (Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Britain). Furthermore, the force was not primarily an EU-initiative but one that will be led by the UK, as Solana emphasised in comments immediately after Michel's pronouncement.

Michel's boss Guy Verhofstadt arguably had a far better summit. The Belgian premier was in the enviable position of being able to present himself as a standard-bearer for a brave new Europe, while simultaneously keeping the peace in his own backyard.

When it became clear that Italy's Silvio Berlusconi would not agree to Helsinki hosting the new European Food Authority (EFA) at Parma's expense, Verhofstadt decided to call a halt to the summit. He said he was not prepared to chair a round of horse-trading which could go on all night, adding that he did not think "citizens would understand if we were falling back to the old ways of all-night marathons".

Not only is his popularity rating likely to increase internationally, it will also please more parochial voters that the new authority will be located in Brussels. In theory, the Belgian capital is only getting yet another agency on a temporary basis but it is conceivable that once the EFA starts its work in Brussels in the New Year, it will end up remaining in the city. Chances of both Italy and Finland thrashing out a compromise in the near future seem remote.

Another plum for Belgium was that Verhofstadt's predecessor Jean-Luc Dehaene will be joint vice-president of the Convention with Berlusconi's predecessor Giuliano Amato. Significantly, both belonged to the group of "wise men" Verhofstadt recruited to help him prepare for Laeken (they were all men, of course, even if Verhofstadt has claimed on occasions to be a champion of gender balance). With his close ties to disgraced former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Dehaene could be considered another of "yesterday's men" given a fresh chance to shape the direction of Europe.

The "conclusions" adopted by the summit described the Laeken Declaration as "a decisive step for the citizen towards a simpler Union, one that is stronger in the pursuit of its essential objectives and more definitely present in the world".

It takes some leap of the imagination, though, to call the declaration "decisive". Instead it contains a series of questions, answered with what could be considered as "motherhood and apple pie" comments. The teaser, "What is Europe's role in this changed world?", for example, leads to a series of non-sequiturs about the Magna Carta, the French Revolution and collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Perhaps the most important thing about the declaration is that member states no longer balk at the "c-word". Using terms that will doubtlessly rankle with Eurosceptics, it indicates that the "simplification and reorganisation" of the EU's powers might lead "in the long run to the adoption of a constitutional text in the Union".

Few seem willing to state how a constitution can be agreed when it is doubtful if the Nice Treaty will ever come into effect. The treaty requires ratification by all member states but Ireland's voters - the only ones in the EU who were actually asked their view about it via a referendum - rejected Nice in June. Dublin is contemplating holding a second poll and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern acknowledged over the weekend that he does not have a "Plan B" if his country says No a second time.

Inevitably, the declaration's reference to a European constitution will be seized on by the anti-treaty side in the next referendum. About the only thing Ahern could say to assuage leaders' fears at the summit was that he believed the question of whether national vetoes over such key areas as taxation and security policy should be sacrificed had been signed off for another 20 years. However, recent comments by Romano Prodi clearly illustrate that he, for one, does not share that view.

While Louis Michel sought credit for the EU in helping to build the international coalition against terrorism in the wake of 11 September, the differences between the Union and the US over the Middle East were quite evident at Laeken. Just as Washington was recalling its peace envoy Anthony Zinni from the region and yet again siding with Israel against Yasser Arafat, the EU was intent to stress it will continue backing the PLO leader. "The alternative to the Palestinian Authority is Palestinian anarchy," said External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten.

Despite the Union's insistence on presenting a balanced perspective on the protracted conflict - urging both Arafat to dismantle terrorist networks and Israel's Ariel Sharon to cease attacks on the Palestinians - no narrowing of the gulf between it and the US on this key foreign policy issue appears imminent.

Major analysis of the European Council, Laeken, 14-15 December 2001.

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