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EU: Crowded Laeken Summit Faces Contentious Issues

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union's end-of-the-year summit (14-15 December) gets under way at Laeken in Belgium tomorrow, and the 15 leaders face an unusually broad agenda. They will be discussing terrorism, and in particular deciding key details of the controversial new European arrest warrant, designed to counter terrorist activity. Lively discussion is also expected on the terms of a convention that is to be established by the summit to discuss the EU's future. The two-day Laeken meeting is also likely to declare operational the EU's rapid reaction military force.

Prague, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Security is tight for this weekend's European Union summit at the royal palace of Laeken in Brussels, with Belgian police deployed throughout the city and fighter aircraft said to be on alert, ready to counter any terrorist threat. Anti-globalization and anti-capitalist demonstrations are planned for central Brussels, but the Belgian authorities are turning back foreigners they regard as potential troublemakers at the country's borders.

EU summits used to be relatively relaxed affairs, but following the September terrorist attacks and the wave of anti-globalization protests, the atmosphere has changed. Now the leaders are meeting at a secluded palace, deep inside a closed park, far from the public gaze.

The 15 will be discussing the rebuilding of Afghanistan, as well as terrorism and how to counter it. They have the difficult job of defining just what constitutes terrorism. The definition is for use in the new European arrest warrant, which is designed to cut through cumbersome extradition procedures between member states and ensure that terror suspects are dealt with swiftly. Britain and Spain, in particular, have been supportive of the pan-European warrant, probably reflecting the fact that they have active terrorist problems on their own territory -- in Northern Ireland and in the Basque country.

But the subject of antiterrorism regulations has become controversial, with rights groups expressing concern that repressive measures are being enacted that undercut individual rights. The head of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, warned this week that the antiterrorism drive could end up playing into the hands of those same antidemocratic forces it is designed to counter.

European affairs analyst Steven Everts, of the London-based Center for European Reform, says one way to minimize the danger to human rights is to focus on defining "terrorist acts" -- specific actions -- and leave aside the larger issue of what constitutes "terrorism."

"As we work these measures through, we have to specify what list of crimes and acts this common arrest warrant will apply to, [and] in that process a common definition of terrorist acts would be helpful, rather than a looser definition of terrorism, which could then be subject to political interpretation and political debates."

The summit will also debate the future form of the union, as it moves toward expanding eastward. The leaders are due to establish a convention tasked with setting out how a union enlarged to almost twice its present size should function. The convention will report to a decision-making intergovernmental conference in 2004.

The subject of the EU's future is also contentious, since it touches on the basic differences of view between those member states who favor continued integration toward a federalized Europe, and those who see the union primarily as a single-market trading block of sovereign states.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium, the current EU president, plans to present to the summit a radical pro-integrationist blueprint, which reportedly foresees direct election of the European Commission president, a union constitution, and more decisions by majority vote instead of unanimity.

Britain has already made known its view that the Belgian proposals go too far, and that it wants the summit to revise the draft terms of reference.

Brussels-based analyst John Palmer, the chairman of the European Policy Center, says he expects the Laeken debate to have an impact on the terms of the mandate given to the convention. But he says:

"My impression is that it will be a fairly broad mandate that will allow the convention to focus in on the key issues which must be addressed this time, that have not been addressed in previous treaties, and must be addressed in a constitutional settlement in 2004."

The summit will also appoint a chairman for the convention, with favorite candidates being former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, and former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato.

The renewed debate for and against integration comes at a time when the international terror crisis is seen as having led to a "renationalization" of foreign policy. In other words, Britain, Germany, France, and others are seen to have been going their own way in interacting with the U.S.-led antiterror campaign. In a statement yesterday (Wednesday), German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder noted this, saying it stems from deficits in the EU's common foreign and security policy, and he called for further European integration.

Schroeder also said the Laeken summit will go ahead and declare the EU's rapid reaction military force to be operational on a limited basis, despite lingering disputes involving Turkey and Greece over how the force might be used. The new force will eventually have 60,000 troops at its disposal.

The Laeken agenda teems with other items, from the suggestion for a common EU-wide boarder guard to the siting of new EU agencies, including a food safety bureau, maritime safety authority, European prosecutor's office and others. The crowding of the agenda is so severe, it raises questions about the way EU decisions are made.

Analyst Palmer said: "Either the EU heads of government are going to have to meet even more frequently, possibly monthly, with summits that are hypothecated -- that is, focused on one or two specific issues -- or they meet at the present level of frequency but delegate to special Europe ministers designated by them with full authority to settle on their behalf matters affecting the running of the EU executive. Those are among the reforms, of course, which are being looked at in the forthcoming convention."

All in all, the coming two days should be hectic, both for the politicians inside the Laeken palace and for the police outside the fence.

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