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Europe

Much to lose, much to gain in Laeken

As the European Union grows more ambitious in political scope, its annual summits have become more complicated, as national delegations meeting in Belgium well know.

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Shared vision? Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi clowns around while Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt looks on soberly at the EU Summit

If EU leaders get what they want during their 2-day summit with national delegations in Laeken, Belgium, they will be able to declare concrete progress on the way to a “federal Europe”.

Several difficult issues are on the agenda – from the union’s militarization with a 60,000-strong “rapid reaction force”, to co-ordinated crime-fighting mechanisms and the vast matters of constitutional reform and enlargment from 15 member states to as many as 27.

All this comes just two weeks prior to the greatest moment of truth in EU history – the launch of its common currency, the Euro.

Complicating matters further, the summit is going ahead despite lingering doubts about the agreements from last year’s summit, in the French city of Nice.

There, delegations agreed on a new plan for proportional representation, once the EU enlarges. The Nice deal can be nullified by individual member states. Ireland did just that with a referendum, and unless the government in Dublin can persuade enough voters to change their minds, that agreement may be dead.

The shear complexity of it all has prompted the union’s biggest and most influential states – such as Germany and France – to simply keep moving ahead with plans for an integrated Europe, as they envision it, in concert with European Commission President Romano Prodi.

Their goals in the talks that opened Friday include a “Declaration of Laeken” detailing the future of Europe and a deal on the location of a host of EU agencies. One way or another, they are likely to achieve agreement on these points.

The military issue, though, is still held up by Greek opposition. The country prizes its membership in NATO and, like the United States, sees potential conflicts between military alliances that overlap the same territory.

Delegations are also expected to discuss their nominees for president of a European constitutional convention. Two of the men informally nominated so far, former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and former Italian premier Giuliano Amato, have reportedly failed to generate popular interest.

The constitutional question is of particular interest to Germany and France, which earlier this year presented a joint vision for the union’s future as a federal entity.

There is inevitable scepticism from some smaller countries, though, which worry that a strengthening “European super-state” will undermine their sovereignty.

This greater concern, coupled with the complexity of the EU’s decision-making processes, has held up other reforms to be addressed in Laeken, too.

The union aims to establish a common patent authority – a hugely complicated reform that would entail gradual integration of all member states’ standards and contracts on intellectual property. This, too, has been held up but is on the Laeken agenda.

If the EU’s member states can take meaningful steps on any one of these issues, it will be of great consequence to the continent. If they achieve agreement on more than one, or all of the issues, it will be exceptional.

The more ambitious the union becomes in its federal form, the sweatier the brows of its members, locked in debate across the negotiating table.

A failure of nerve can mean a failure of the “European project” as its leaders in Brussels envision it.

There is much to lose and much to gain in Laeken.

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