Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt -- who currently heads the current rotating European Union presidency -- has begun a tour of the other 14 EU countries to exchange views on the upcoming Laeken summit. RFE/RL's EU correspondent Ahto Lobjakas -- who earlier this week accompanied Verhofstadt on trips to Helsinki, Copenhagen, and Berlin -- reports the summit is likely to be dominated by discussions of the future of the EU, its defense project and the fight against terrorism, with enlargement consigned to a secondary role.
Brussels, 30 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's year-ending summit in Laeken, Belgium, in mid-December (14-15 December) will break with recent custom and largely ignore the issue of enlargement.
This does not reflect any genuine disaffection for the project among member states. National positions have largely remained the same throughout the year. Rather, the events of 11 September and related issues have forced enlargement "off the agenda," as one Belgian diplomat put it.
Originally planned to take center stage at Laeken, enlargement has hardly been discussed at all at the preparatory meetings Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has held this week with colleagues in London, Helsinki, Copenhagen, and Berlin.
This was particularly clear after Verhofstadt's meeting with his Finnish counterpart Paavo Lipponen. Traditionally an enthusiastic proponent of the candidates' cause, Lipponen indicated that candidates should not expect any messages that go beyond what is already known. This takes in the recent European Commission progress reports saying up to 10 countries could join the EU in 2004, but ignores a rash promise made by Verhofstadt a month ago to produce a definitive list of who will make the cut.
This is how Lipponen described the message Finland expects the Laeken summit to send to EU candidate nations in December: "[We expect a] positive signal to the accession countries, based on the real progress that they have made and [as recorded] in the [European] Commission [progress] report. So we have a good basis to send a positive signal."
The only candidates who can expect "personalized" treatment at Laeken are Bulgaria and Romania, ruled out of the first wave of accession by the Commission progress reports. Some EU governments, led by Germany, feel the two countries should be sent a message affirming the EU's intention to take them in eventually.
Closest to the Belgian prime minister's heart has been the issue of constitutional reform. The Laeken summit will adopt a declaration launching a convention to debate simplifying the structure of the EU's basic treaties and redistributing responsibilities between EU, national, and local authorities. In 2004, EU member countries will hold an "intergovernmental conference" to decide what action will be taken.
In conversations with journalists, Verhofstadt readily admitted that the issue is wide open. Member states have yet to agree on how many members the convention will have, who will become its president, or how binding its decisions should be for member governments.
Next on Verhofstadt's list of core themes for the Laeken summit are developments in the fight against terrorism, especially the ongoing attempts to establish a common definition of terrorism and an EU-wide arrest warrant.
Verhofstadt says the drive toward establishing an EU-wide judicial space is on a par with the current biggest common project -- the introduction of the euro in January.
"We have also talked about other important topics, and I have in mind above all the fight against terrorism, the adoption of a European arrest warrant -- which is very important, because a European arrest warrant will be for European justice and home affairs policy exactly as significant as the euro will be in the economic and monetary spheres."
The third central item on the Laeken agenda will be the fledgling EU defense project, intended to provide the bloc with a rapid reaction force of 60,000 men by 2003. The Belgian presidency is keen to have the force declared partially operational before the end of this year.
The EU defense project is an issue that enjoys broad support among the EU's "big powers" -- Britain, Germany, and France. Echoing a call he made jointly with French President Jacques Chirac earlier this week for the greater "visibility" of unified European military muscle, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said yesterday the defense project will constitute a central theme at the Laeken summit.
"Naturally [our discussions with Verhofstadt] touched upon the need for Europe to be capable of action in the fight against terrorism. This is [our] firm intention, but naturally within the framework of NATO, not against it, as has sometimes been suspected, or without it. We want to develop a European identity within this framework. It should, of course, be fully functional. I think that we could in this context do better in the so-called post-Taliban phase in Afghanistan, fulfilling our tasks not only in national dimensions in the reconstruction phase, but we should also be visible as Europeans."
A number of EU governments also want to extend the list of the so-called "Petersberg tasks," which limit the use of the EU's defense force to mainly humanitarian actions.
Finally, Turkey is expected to be a hotly debated issue at the summit. Problems associated with Turkey cut across the entire range of the EU's core objectives.
Turkey continues to block EU access to NATO resources, demanding a decision-making role in the EU defense project. It opposes the accession of Cyprus into the EU, saying it would annex the island's northern, Turkish part if this happens. Although an accession candidate itself, Turkey resents the fact that the EU has so far denied it a place at the negotiating table. Finally, Turkey is demanding a place on the convention debating the future of the EU.
Belgian diplomats -- on condition of anonymity -- say that Prime Minister Verhofstadt, who visited Turkey earlier this week, indicated the EU would be prepared to offer Turkey a "deal" for de-blocking EU access to NATO assets. The deal could involve increased cooperation in the fight against terrorism, a seat on the convention, and unspecified ideas on Cyprus.
Some EU circles have also suggested offering Turkey a clearer accession perspective, but this latter option is unlikely to gain wider support.