LAEKEN EUROPEAN COUNCIL
Mr President, the Laeken European Council will sadly rank amongst the less impressive meetings of its kind. It was a missed opportunity and a serious disappointment, like the Belgian Presidency which preceded it. Why? Not just because of the consistency of the Foreign Minister, Louis Michel, who for us emerges as an endearing Harry Worth-type figure on the European political stage: we seem to have passed over his proclamation that the British-led UN peacekeeping force in Afghanistan was to become an EU body. The key problem is that, for this Presidency, these last months have been a painful learning curve.
The excessive, often misguided, aspirations of July - like ideas for a new Euro-tax on all EU citizens or a Tobin tax on capital movements - found themselves on a collision course with reality. At Laeken, the EU's new rapid reaction force was declared operational even though, critically, its access to NATO assets is currently blocked. Indeed, the precise relationship between the force and NATO remains ambiguous. The European arrest warrant enjoyed a particularly painful birth, with some uncertainty about when, or if ever, it will apply in Italy. The attempt to assign sites for various new EU bodies descended into farce.
Little progress was made at Laeken, or indeed throughout the Belgian Presidency, on the competitiveness agenda in Europe. The Lisbon strategy, which has been grounded since Stockholm, now faces a moment of truth in Barcelona, if we are truly to become the dynamic, knowledge-based economy that is sought.
Finally, let me turn to the Laeken Declaration itself. The text acknowledges the EU's failings in terms of democracy, transparency and closeness to the people, but seems to come up yet again with solutions on federal lines. These options represent the wrong route for Europe. The Convention should learn the lessons of the last decade, reject ambitions for a European superstate, and focus on modest and intelligent reforms which can really deliver a Europe that works.