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Europe

News Analysis: 2008 Was Busy Year for EU Meeting Rooms

A number of crises threw the European Union into near-constant meeting mode in 2008, but the summits have shown that Europe can play a leading -- if sometimes unclear -- role in word affairs.

From left to right, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Central Bank President Jean Claude Trichet

2009 was a year of many meetings for EU heads of state

Asked over the summer what the European Union should do about Russia's invasion of Georgia, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt replied, "obviously, have a meeting."

In fact, 2008 has seen an abundance of gatherings by EU heads of state and government, not all of them due to the hyper-activism of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the bloc's appointed leader for the last half-year.

A number of events have acted in concert to make this year one of the busiest on record for Brussels: Kosovo's declaration of independence in February; surging food and oil prices in the spring; Ireland's "no" to the Lisbon Treaty in June; the Russia-Georgia war in August; a global financial meltdown in September; an autumnal recession and a climate change fight in December.

Because of its need for compromise, the 27-member bloc is ill-suited for rapid action, and works best as a good-weather organization.

And yet, while certainly provoking plenty of discombobulating, the various emergencies of 2008 have helped raise the EU's profile on the international scene, insiders argue.

For a start, switching into permanent crisis-management mode has helped leaders avoid yet another excruciating period of navel-gazing, which would normally have followed the failure of the Irish referendum on a treaty designed to speed up decision-making.

Sarkozy's stewardship

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy was the man of many summits as EU president

More importantly, it has shown that Europe can play a leading -- if at times unclear -- role in world affairs. The most obvious example is the EU's handling of Georgia's early August conflict with Russia.

Within weeks of the fighting erupting, Sarkozy had brokered a cease-fire between Moscow and Tbilisi and had convened an extraordinary summit to decide how the EU should deal with an increasingly belligerent Russia.

While far from flawless, both initiatives showed that Brussels was able to act while Washington was distracted by a presidential election campaign.

"By bringing France back to the heart of Europe, Sarkozy has helped increase the EU's international standing," says a seasoned Brussels diplomat.

Having had to cut short their summer holidays because of the Georgia crisis, many Eurocrats had hoped for a more business-like ending to the year. It was not to be.

With financial markets imploding around the world, Sarkozy convened yet another extraordinary summit for Oct. 12 -- the first ever involving leaders of the 15 EU countries that share the euro, plus Britain. Equally extraordinary was that this meeting took place only three days before the EU's regular mid-October summit.

Brussels-centric approach

Belgian tricolor and European Union flags are seen on at the side entrance of the renovated Berlaymont European Commission building in Brussels

The Berlaymont building, which houses the commission, has seen more action this year

And while the jury is still out on whether such gatherings have produced the intended results, there is consolation in the fact that most such summits now take place in the EU council's headquarters in Brussels, rather than around the continent, as was practice until 2003.

On top of saving plenty of European taxpayers' money, the decision has also made it easier to organize an event that requires the contribution of hundreds of workers -- from movers and caterers to security guards.

Upon their arrival at the council building, in the heart of Brussels' European quarter, leaders announce their intentions to an eagerly awaiting horde of journalists before heading for Room 50.1.

This is a huge, hexagonal room measuring at least 20 meters in length, where the 27 leaders take a seat around a similarly shaped hexagonal table graced by flowers.

When discussions start, only interpreters remain with them and no recordings are allowed. And because the table is so big and distances so large, each leader has a television monitor with which to scrutinize his or her colleagues' body language.

Meanwhile, the various 20-strong delegations are provided with grey, blue, yellow or red badges, granting them different levels of access to the building.

"The idea here is to avoid over-crowding, but also to ensure that leaders have some privacy," an official told German news agency DPA.

Czechs to take EU reigns

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, shakes hands with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, right, after signing a bilateral agreement

Sarkozy will hand over to Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, right

One of the most curious incidents took place at the October summit, when Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk refused to accredit his political rival, Polish President Lech Kaczynski.

Organizers did their utmost to make Kaczynski comfortable, but refused to grant badges to his aides, thus forcing the president to march through a hall hosting hundreds of journalists in order to chat with his assistants waiting outside the building.

"It was a question of principle," the official said when asked why Kaczynski's aides were refused access to the meeting. "You can't have one EU member state suddenly become two."

Diplomats say the world has become more unpredictable and will likely remain this way for some time to come.

So, despite Sarkozy now passing the EU presidency baton, on Jan. 1, to his more laid-back colleague, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, it is safe to assume that there will be plenty more meetings around that hexagonal table in Brussels.

As one diplomat dryly noted, "when the chips are down," even traditionally euro-skeptic politicians like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown "take Brussels seriously."

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