19 DECEMBER 2001

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The Laeken Summit – an overview

At last weekend’s EU Laeken Summit, EU leaders moved forward on reforms, named candidate countries likely to finalise negotiations next year but faltered when it came to deciding on the location of its infrastructural agencies. Following is an overview of the summit’s results

European Union leaders Saturday named the 10 candidate countries likely to wrap up EU membership negotiations next year.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, whose country presides over the EU through the end of this year, told a press conference following a two-day summit here that it was the first time the European Council specifically named the 10.

The gesture was a nod of approval to last month's European Commission report on the state of progress of accession talks.

The countries were Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Verhofstadt said that if the 10 countries did, in fact, finish negotiations in 2002, they could become EU members in time to participate in European Parliament elections in June 2004.

That is when the next European Parliament elections take place. Citizens of the nations that join the bloc would then be casting ballots along with those in the 15 incumbent EU member states.

The leaders, meeting at the Laeken royal palace on the outskirts of Brussels, said in a draft text that they appreciated the efforts made by laggards Bulgaria and Romania, "and would encourage them to continue on that course."

Turkey, which became the 13th enlargement candidate two years ago, has made progress towards complying with the political criteria established for accession, in particular through the recent amendment of its constitution, the draft said.

The changes have brought forward the prospect of the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey, which cannot start talks with Brussels until it is seen making progress on democratic change and human rights, the conclusions said.

Enlargement into eastern and southern Europe is the most important item on the EU agenda, alongside the January 1 launch of Euro notes and coins in 12 of the member states.

The European Union also took decisive steps this weekend to reform its core institutions as it prepares for its historic enlargement, but failed to agree on where to locate a batch of new EU agencies.

Saturday's finish to the two-day Laeken summit of EU heads of state and government proved again that when the going gets rough, the 15 EU member states prefer to put their own national interests first.

After a long exhausting night of exchanging between the EU leaders, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt - who turns the rotating EU presidency over to Spain on 1 January - brought the summit to an abrupt close.

"When I saw it was impossible to get agreements, I refused to start a new round of negotiations that would have given a negative image of what Europe is about," Verhofstadt told reporters.

Temporary homes were approved for the two most important EU agencies.

Brussels will be the interim address of the European Food Safety Authority, which is to look out for any repeat of the mad cow and foot and mouth scandals that have shaken Europeans' confidence in the food they eat.

Eurojust, a new pan-European judicial co-operation agency that is a key part of EU efforts to combat global terrorism, will meanwhile set up shop in The Hague, which is also home to the European police agency, Europol.

Finland's capital Helsinki, the French city of Lille, the Italian city of Parma and the Spanish city of Barcelona have been battling each other for the prestige of hosting the food authority.

Brussels and Luxembourg, already richly endowed with key EU institutions like the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, had all vied to house Eurojust.

Other prizes that were up for grabs Saturday and left that way included an EU maritime safety agency, an air safety agency and a police college.

The mood was more upbeat earlier in the day when the leaders adopted the Laeken Declaration, setting into motion the wheels of a new round of EU reforms intended to avoid just the kind of deadlock that spoiled the summit's finale.

Named after the 18th century Belgian royal chateau that was the summit's venue, the declaration called for a Europe that is more democratic, more efficient and closer to its citizens.

"Europe is on its way to becoming one big family (through enlargement), without bloodshed - a real transformation clearly calling for a different approach," it stated.

Tasked with figuring out how to meet Laeken's lofty goals is a 105-member constitutional convention that will canvass views from all sectors of European society for a year from March 2002.

Presiding over it will be Valery Giscard d'Estaing, 75, who was France's president before he lost re-election in 1981 amidst a scandal over a gift of diamonds he received from a central African dictator.

More recently Giscard - mocked in office for his lordly, arrogant style - has been keeping busy in public life in France's central Auvergne region, where his pet project was a theme park dedicated to volcanoes.

His vice presidents will be former Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, whose own scandal-scarred government fumbled the 1996 Marc Dutroux child sex murder investigation, and Giuliano Amato, Italy's most recent former premier.

Dehaene and his Christian Democrats were defeated in 1999 elections won by a Liberal and Green coalition led by Verhofstadt.

On other issues, the summit hailed the euro currency, which goes into public circulation on New Year's Day, as a safe harbour from global "financial turbulence," as five of the 12 euro zone countries put "starter packets" of euro coins on sale.

It seconded the European Commission's optimistic prediction last month that 10 of the 12 countries negotiating to join the EU could well do so in time for European Parliament elections in June 2004, if they can all keep up the pace of meeting the tough accession criteria.

The summit also reaffirmed Europe's vigorous support for the US-led coalition against terrorism, forged after the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington, and ordered work to start on the creation of a possible EU-wide border patrol.

But under protests from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the leaders, who take decisions by consensus, deleted conclusions demanding that Washington seek international approval before taking military action outside Afghanistan.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt