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Europe

Terrorism Tops Agenda at EU Summit

European Union leaders arrived in Brussels on Thursday for their annual Spring summit. First on the agenda is an action plan to combat terrorism.

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Any European could be the target of terror.

EU leaders arrived in Brussels on Thursday evening for their annual spring meeting to discuss Europe's most pressing matters. The two-day summit will be dominated by security concerns following the deadly train bombings in Madrid. The attacks have lent a new urgency to the EU's efforts to forge a unified counter-terrorism policy, and the leaders agreed on an ambitious new action plan during their first round of meetings.

But while the events in Madrid pushed anti-terror measures to the top of the agenda, some EU leaders arrived with a sense of optimism that progress would be made on another problematic EU issue, the stalled constitution.

Making progress on combating terror

At a meeting of EU justice and interior ministers last week, the member states made progress on a deal to pool their resources and facilitate the sharing of information on threat groups to pre-empt further attacks.

Gijs de Vries

Former Dutch Deputy Interior Minister Gijs de Vries has been named EU "anti-terrorism czar".

On Thursday evening, the leaders appointed Dutchman Gijs de Vries (photo), former deputy minister in the Dutch Foreign Ministry and an erstwhile member of the European Parliament, as the EU's first anti-terrorism czar -- Europe's answer to Washington's Department of Homeland Security. Leaders also signed a NATO-style declaration of solidarity pledging automatic assistance, including military aid, to any member state attacked by terrorists.

In addition, they addressed the underlying causes of terrorism by underlining the need to find solutions to global crises including the Arab-Israeli conflict and speeding up the transfer of power to a sovereign Iraqi government.

Divisions persist

Despite widespread agreement on the need to coordinate efforts to tackle terrorism, differences still need to be ironed out among member states on the best way to go about it.

Both French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have misgivings about sharing sensitive intelligence with all 25 current and soon-to-be EU members. The two fear that such a move would invariably lead to damaging information leaks that could fall into the hands of terrorist outfits like al Qaeda.

The two leaders are also opposed to establishing a European intelligence agency, modeled after the CIA as proposed by Belgium and Austria. France has suggested that information-swapping be limited to a small core group of the five largest EU states, including Italy, Spain and Germany, which have the largest intelligence services.

An agreement on the constitution in sight?

The ongoing saga over the EU constitution has not been entirely pushed off the radar screen by security concerns. Upon arriving in Brussels, many EU leaders expressed optimism that progress would be made. The Spanish and Polish governments have signaled that their positions have softened, making the possibility of a compromise before the end of the Irish presidency all the more likely.

According to Pat Cox, the president of the European Parliament, a compromise is "within reach." The row has pitted Germany and France against Spain and Poland over voting rights. Germany and France wanted to change the system to require the support of at least 50 percent of EU member states representing at least 60 percent of the bloc's population, while Spain and Poland wanted to retain the preferential voting rights they negotiated at the Nice summit in 2000.

Now both are considering the "double majority" system proposed by the Irish presidency, which would change the balance of power to 55 percent on both counts and tip the scales -- ever so slightly -- in favor of smaller states. Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said, "We have not ruled out the possibility of a compromise based on the principle of a double majority."

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