Why Laeken wasn’t quite the summit of the Belgian presidency’s ambitions

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Series Details Vol.7, No.47, 20.12.01, p11
Publication Date 20/12/2001
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Date: 20/12/01

By Gareth Harding

DURING THE 19th century, European leaders used to meet in royal palaces to settle scores, divvy up political posts and sketch out grand designs for the future of the continent.

At Laeken last weekend, EU heads of state had to make do with the ornate greenhouses King Leopold II built with blood money from the Congo.

As a means of bringing Europe closer to its citizens, the choice of summit venue was about as bewildering as the decision to ask former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to head the Convention charged with drawing up a new treaty.

Giscard last held office two decades ago at a time when they still had coups in Spain, Leonid Brezhnev in the Kremlin and sane politicians in the UK's Tory party.

The decision to appoint the 75-year-old Gaullist came as a surprise to most observers, but not to one MEP hovering around the press room in Laeken.

The deputy was reliably informed by sources close to Commission President Romano Prodi that over a week before the summit, Giscard was checking out rooms in the Commission's Breydel HQ and enquiring about parking space for his chauffeur.

According to the member, VGE (as he is known in France) hardly made the best impression in Brussels.

At one stage in his meeting he politely enquired what the difference was between the Council and the Commission.

Ex-premiers Jean-Luc Dehaene and Giuliano Amato could have told him.

In a classic compromise à la Belge, rather than snubbing the two Laeken Group members, both have now been found jobs as the ageing chairman's right-hand men.

If only such a formula could have been found for the seats of the half a dozen or so EU agencies that were up for grabs over the weekend. Cities such as Helsinki, Parma, Nantes and Lille have spent the past year vying for these seats and the decision was awaited with the sort of anticipation usually associated with Olympic bids.

Agreeing a declaration on the future of Europe was child's-play compared to parcelling out the agencies.

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi railed that Finns were so ignorant about fine food that they didn't even know what prosciutto was and French President Jacques Chirac was so furious at the Swedes for wondering why Spain had been offered the IT agency that he suggested Stockholm should house a new European modelling agency because it had such beautiful women.

Using this sort of logic, France should get the EU Agency for Corrupt Politicians and Italy the European Advisory Council on Government Changeovers. The end result of Saturday's horse-trading is that Brussels will temporarily house the European Food Authority.

Given the grub which was on offer to journalists at the summit, this is hardly reassuring.

Aside from plates of blood sausage and horsemeat salami, liveried waiters buzzed around with what looked like plates of fly-congealed aspic.

But if the hosts were stingy on the food front, they more than made up for it on the decor.

Belgium has used its presidency to position itself as Europe's capital of surrealism.

It based its logo on Magritte, handed out garden gnomes at Ghent and left Panamarenko sculptures littered around the exhibition rooms at Heysel.

A brochure handed out to journalists recounts how Panamarenko achieved international fame as an inventor of "boats which do not sail, aeroplanes which do not fly, cars which do not progress an inch and artificial satellites which will never travel through space".

An apt metaphor for the deadlock which the summit ended in or just another intellectual Belgian ruse?

I'll leave you with the words of PM Guy Verhofstadt. "Reality can surpass imagination," he wrote in a piece on Panamarenko, "but we can all benefit from being led by imagination."

For the past six months, the EU has indeed been headed by a visionary leader with a fertile political mind.

The problem at Laeken was that Verhofstadt was surrounded by small-minded egomaniacs like Chirac and Berlusconi whose political vocabulary seems to be limited to the words "more" and "no".

Commentary feature on the European Council, Laeken, 14-15 December 2001.

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