The good, the bad and the fuzzy

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Series Details Vol 7, No.13, 29.3.01, p13
Publication Date 29/03/2001
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Date: 29/03/01

STOCKHOLM was this week at the centre of a major change in EU law that has sparked protest from ordinary people and will directly affect the lives of millions. Oh, and there was also meeting of European leaders.

Sweden joined the Schengen pact, meaning everyone arriving at the Stockholm summit had to have their passports handy - but didn't need them on their way out as customs checks for journeys between Sweden and other Union nations had become a thing of the past.

With a summit as unfocused, uninspiring and thin on achievement as this, it's not surprising the Swedes wanted to make it easy for us all to go home.

The meeting - held in a hangar-like conference centre eight-and-a-half kilometres from the heart of Stockholm - was called to discuss progress towards the goals, agreed at Lisbon a year ago, of making Europe the most competitive, knowledge-based economy in the world.

From the start, though, meaningful movement on these issues was unlikely. The French were unwilling to make commitments on liberalising energy markets, several member states objected to proposals on a European patent, and plans for a single European sky were not even on the table after being grounded by Commission Vice-President Loyola de Palacio.

The one great success of the summit, a deal on the Lamfalussy proposals on opening up financial services markets, was actually agreed by finance ministers before the conference formally started.

Internal Market Commissioner Frits Bolkestein summed up the atmosphere of frustration perfectly: "The image the EU projects to the outside world is fuzzy. We engage in declaratory politics and do not follow it up with action."

The heads of state and government appeared underwhelmed by the task at hand. Rather, they seemed to be desperately searching around for something else to talk about - events in Macedonia, relations with Russia, foot-and-mouth disease, all seemed more attractive options.

After an introductory statement at his only press conference, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said precisely one sentence about progress on the Lisbon goals before moving on to the foot-and-mouth epidemic. But then the whole summit seemed to be a tiresome affair for Blair, who left before the final round of press briefings.

Swedish Premier Göran Persson seemed more comfortable talking about external relations than the Lisbon goals. He reiterated the Union's support for peace in Macedonia and waxed lyrical about the importance of good relations with Russia.

Indeed if there was a highlight it was the appearance of Vladimir Putin, a first-ever visit by a Russian leader to an EU summit. Member states had originally been angry that Persson had invited Putin without consulting them, but as the summit wore on they seemed increasingly glad he had.

Putin introduced a frisson of danger to proceedings. His comments on Russia's ruthless suppression of the Chechnyan rebels made it clear that this was not a man who engaged much in fuzzy politics. "Those who were not willing to be disarmed were to be destroyed," he said, before adding as a concession to his audience, "or brought to trial".

In the final briefing Persson looked bored and admitted he had not achieved everything he wanted.

"We didn't go as far as we would have liked in electricity and gas but we've got a clear decision to go further next time," he said. "This is how life is: we don't get everything all at once, but it's not bad."

Other areas he hailed as a success included the commitment to sort out postal service liberalisation by the end of the year and the renewed support for the Galileo satellite project. But as far as concrete commitments were concerned, it was decidedly slim pickings.

French President Jacques Chirac said that instead of criticising the Council's working methods, which can always be improved, "we should sometimes say that the bottle is half full".

He may be right. Sometimes a political push is needed to get things going, but if all the Lisbon follow-ups turn out to be as half full as Stockholm then spring could provide little cheer for the EU for many years to come.

Analysis and commentary on the European Council, Stockholm, 23-24.3.01.

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