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Europe

Making the EU More Transparent

Most Europeans feel the EU is bureaucratic and inefficient. Europe’s leaders rose to the challenge at their weekend summit in Belgium.

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EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, left, and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer compare notes.

The European Union admits that times have certainly changed since six nations created the body back in 1951 as an economic and technical collaboration. "Fifty years on, the Union stands at a crossroads, a defining moment in its existence," the leaders said in their declaration adopted at the European Council Summit in Laeken, Belgium.

The leaders meeting at the Royal Castle in Laeken said the EU needed to clearly address its responsibilities in a globalized world. But the bloc also seeked "to set globalization within a moral framework" and address the needs of poor countries.

Public apathy for the EU

But the EU faces a serious problem: most Europeans could care less about it.

The EU recognizes this difficulty. For this reason, the leaders agreed to launch a so-called "Convention" on the bloc's future. This Convention could bring extensive changes to the way the EU works, and even include a European constitution.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing

Former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing speaks to journalists after the medal ceremony of the Jean Monnet Foundation in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Friday Nov. 9, 2001. Helmut Schmidt and Valery Giscard d'Estaing received the gold medal for their decisive contribution to the European monetary union. (AP Photo/KEYSTONE/Fabrice Coffrini)

The new organ, headed by France’s former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing (photo), will take up its work in March. It will address issues such as the competence areas of the EU, necessary reorganization, and the better coordination of economic and foreign policies. "The question ultimately arises as to whether this simplification and reorganization might not lead in the long run to the adoption of a constitutional text in the Union," the declaration said.

Over the next 12 to 15 months, the Convention will draw up proposals for reforms to make the EU operate more smoothly.

EU expansion

The leaders at the summit named 10 predominantly Central and Eastern European countries they believe are on track to join the EU by 2004: Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic and Slovenia.

"In recent months, considerable progress has been made in the negotiations and certain delays have been made good," the leaders concluded. The EU wanted to conclude the expansion talks by the end of 2002, so that those countries can take part in the European Parliament elections in 2004 as members. But they made clear the candidates still have a lot of work ahead.

Europe’s peacekeeping role

A central issue discussed at the summit in Laeken was Europe’s security and defence policy. But the participants reached little agreement in this area.

A planned joint statement urging Washington not to widen its military actions beyond Afghanistan was dropped from the agenda. This was reportedly a result of pressure from heavyweights Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

Also, the new EU Rapid Reaction Force could only be declared partially operational. Greece had blocked an attempt to clinch agreement accepted by its Aegean rival Turkey on the force's assured access to NATO's military planning resources.

The force of up to 60,000 troops is supposed to operate humanitarian and peacekeeping missions from 2003 which NATO does not want to undertake. But the 15 EU countries do not have sufficient forces to man the new force without tapping NATO assets.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel created quite a ruckus when he announced an EU agreement to form a multinational peacekeeping force for Afghanistan. Other ministers quickly contradicted him, saying the EU was in no position yet to organize a military operation.

Leaders also backed away from a proposal to create a common border guard. But they said they still wanted closer cooperation on protecting external borders to help fight terrorism, illegal immigration and human trafficking.

Food for thought

The summit ended on a bitter note following squabbles over which country should host a dozen new EU bodies.

Silvio Berlusconi

Der italienische Oppositionsfuehrer und Medienmagnat Silvio Berlusconi. Nach einer vom italienischen Parlament veroeffentlichten Liste ist Berlusconi der reichste Abgeordnete des Landes.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (photo) demanded a new food safety agency be based in the Italian city of Parma, home of the famous cured ham. The agency had been promised to Helsinki, Finland.

"Parma is synonymous with good cuisine. The Finns don't even know what prosciutto is. I cannot accept this," said Berlusconi according to inofficial verbatim notes of the final meeting.

The outburst led the Council president, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, to cut off the discussion and close the meeting.

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