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Dissecting Laeken: a personal view

Kirsty Hughes
19 December 2001

With their Laeken Declaration, Europe’s leaders have launched a sweepingly ambitious reform process. The Union, they declare, “stands at a crossroads, a defining moment in its existence”. But what kind of turning point? What different directions could it take?

Reflecting the vision and ambitions of the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, the Declaration points the way on three fundamental challenges: how to increase democracy and engage European citizens effectively with the Union; how to organise European politics in an enlarged EU of up to thirty member states; and how to make Europe an effective power in the world. The aim of the latter: to promote stability, establish “a moral framework” for globalisation, and tackle “the world’s heartrending injustices”.

The danger, however, is that the real outcome over the next two years will be the creation of a ‘fortress Europe’ – unwelcoming for refugees, paying perhaps less attention than it should to its own civil liberties. This will not be a Europe that tackles the world’s injustices.

So while it is absolutely vital for Europe’s politicians, NGOs, unions, business, think tanks and media to participate in the Laeken debate boldly and with imagination, they should not take their eye off the ball of actual political developments in the imperfect Europe of today. The world will not stand still while the enlarged Europe constructs its new home.

A momentum for integration…

The sheer scale of Laeken’s ambition has not yet sunk in. It could lead to the establishment of a European constitution, an elected President of the European Commission, meetings of Europe’s ministers open to the TV cameras, and national parliaments having direct powers at European level. The aim, according to the Declaration, is an EU that becomes a democracy, is effective and achieves moral standing in the world.

The setting up of a ‘Convention’ – of European and national MPs from member states and all the candidate countries as well as government representatives – will ensure a much wider and hopefully more imaginative debate than has come in the past from meetings behind closed doors. And the convention will also engage with a wider ‘Forum’ – a potentially huge grouping of NGOs, trade unions, business associations, think tanks and academics.

But the challenge will be to go beyond this. Such a forum does not automatically engage the wider public. The new chairman – Valery Giscard d’Estaing – will have his work cut out to ensure a debate and report that do not slip into the easy route of discussing arcane and technical institutional issues.

He should be helped by the fact that Europe’s leaders push, in the Declaration, for an ambitious focus on the real substance of policies – something perhaps that can engage both Europe’s media and the wider public. Despite all the criticisms of the Belgian Presidency for taking a too federalist approach before the Summit, the Declaration is remarkably integrationist.

It calls for an assessment of how new powers should be distributed within the EU, and asks which existing powers should go back to the member states. But it is noticeable that, so far, all the specific examples given are for a stronger Union: a more coherent common foreign and defence policy; a wider remit for security policy; a more integrated approach to police and criminal co-operation; stepping up economic policy coordination, and intensifying cooperation in social inclusion, the environment, health and food safety.

A broad agenda indeed – and all this at the same time as ensuring more legitimate, open and efficient institutions that can operate after enlargement with almost twice the current number of member states.

…and the threat of a fortress

Nor did Europe’s leaders stop there. 11 September has had its impact. The EU cannot simply step aside from the world for the next two years and look inwards at its own concerns. The challenge of spelling out how to meet the vision of Europe as a moral, and not only a stabilising pole in the world, threatens to be at odds with the actual actions of the EU as it responds to the ongoing global crisis. The difficulties of matching Europe’s economic weight in the world with a strong political voice were shown up clearly enough at Laeken.

Because of a Greek veto obstructing full agreement, Europe’s leaders were forced rather weakly to declare their common security and defence policy operational “to conduct some crisis management operations”. Meanwhile Louis Michel attempted to overplay the European dimensions of the interim force in Afghanistan, only to be slapped down by others, not least the UK, keen to emphasise that it is leading an international, UN mandated force.

The media in general – and especially the British media – have been happy to report the spat. But it was not the big story. While these foreign and security policy dimensions were running into the constraints of national sovereignty, the real action was elsewhere.

The internal justice and home affairs area was pushed rapidly forward in the overall Summit conclusions. Not content with agreeing to the European arrest warrant and common definition of terrorist offences, EU leaders went on to examine the conditions for creating a common European police force for external borders. They agreed to respond swiftly to Commission proposals on a European Public Prosecutor. They committed themselves as soon as possible to finalising a common policy on asylum and immigration.

It is these steps, clearly integrationist, which pose the threat of a fortress dynamic, if they are implemented without sufficient attention to international obligations and to European civil liberties. This is why it is so important for us to engage in the choices between the two alternative Europes. Behind the fine words, there may be progressive deeds. But the new Europe that emerges could be less than a moral example to a world fast approaching its own crossroads.

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