Horse-Trading in the European Union

Will the member countries of the European Union learn to cooperate with each other?

December 18, 2001

Will the member countries of the European Union learn to cooperate with each other?

The 15-nation European Union summit at the Belgian royal palace of Laeken on December 15-16, 2001 reached new heights in Europe’s grand ambition to be taken seriously as a grown-up superpower. “You have the United States, plainly the superpower of the world,” observed Tony Blair. “But…countries in the European Union can project real power — if we’re prepared to work together.”

And yet, the host, Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt, decided to close the meeting early because he could not settle the issue of who gets what.

The harder the assembled statesmen squabbled over the spoils, the more the underbelly of European integration became apparent. At issue was the future location of 12 European agencies. These plump little job-filled morsels are favorites of government heads, who like to take them home and distribute as patronage to favored regions.

The grand prize was the new European Food Authority. Belgium had promised it to Finland as compensation for its former President Martti Ahtisaari not getting the prestigious job of chairing Europe’s new constitutional convention.

That job went instead to the symbol of Europe’s youth and vigor, 75-year old former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. At least, it will keep him from taking some votes from incumbent President Jacques Chirac in the French Presidential elections in April. And that is precisely why Chirac backed his fellow Frenchman and long-time opponent so hard.

But Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi insisted that the new agency go to Parma in Italy. “Parma is synonymous with good cuisine. The Finns don’t even know what prosciutto is. I cannot accept this,” blustered Berlusconi, who’s media empire makes him the world’s richest government leader (current wealth, at least $8 billion) outside the Persian Gulf.

Then, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, who is seldom recognized despite his image consultant’s advice always to wear a bow tie, interrupted to complain: “We got nothing. We always get nothing.” Not quite right. Vienna was earlier awarded Europe’s new institute for monitoring racism and xenophobia. It’s only 12 jobs, but as Ireland’s Bertie Ahern noted sagely, “It’s a growth industry.”

Next, Sweden’s prime minister Goran Persson lumbered into battle, objecting to the assignment of the new European agency for Information Technology Security to Spain. Along with Finland, Sweden has the world’s highest proportion of computers to people. Spain has one of the lowest. Berlusconi, trying to be helpful, argued that Spain needs all the help it can get. But Spanish premier Jose-Maria Aznar did not interpret it that way.

French President Jacques Chirac rose gallantly to the rescue. “How would it be if Sweden got an agency for training models since you have some lovely women?” he said. Persson did not laugh.

Nor was there a smile from Portugal’s Antonio Gutteres, who had been half-promised Europe’s new Maritime Safety Agency, only to see it snatched away by President Chirac for Nantes in France. Not that Chirac cares; a humiliating defeat in Portuguese local elections meant Guterres was history anyway. He resigned Sunday.

Berlusconi returned to the fray, saying he had already compromised on the issue of a Europe-wide arrest warrant, which Europeans consider a key component in their anti-terrorism armor. Berlusconi contended that his fellow Europeans had to give him something in return — the food agency for Parma. They weren’t falling for that.

Quite selfishly, Berlusconi had opposed the arrest warrant because the Madrid magistrates are eager to have him help their inquiries into certain dubious tax matters relating to the Spanish outposts of Berlusconi’s own media empire. He only gave in when it was agreed the warrant could not be made retroactive, letting him off the hook.

So his fellow EU statesmen told Berlusconi he already had his deal. “Then my final word is No”, Berlusconi shouted. This upset German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who said “I love Parma and Parma ham, but you’ll never get it if you argue like this.”

This set Berlusconi off again, warning them all of the dreadful implications of the Europe-wide arrest warrant, which means instant extradition with no appeal for a range of crimes including “xenophobia.” British critics point out this isn’t even a crime in Britain and Ireland, and now hope the House of Lords can save what is left of traditional British liberties from Tony Blair and the Euro-juggernaut.

“You don’t understand how dangerous this can be,” Berlusconi wailed. “You’ll see European leaders hauled away in chains to face some deranged left-wing magistrate with a political agenda.” Since an apparently deranged right-wing Italian prime minister was berating them, the other Europeans though this might not be a bad idea.

“That’s it then,” said the chairman, Belgium’s Verhofstadt. “Since we can’t agree, I’m not going to preside over a demeaning bargaining session that would give Europe a bad image. The summit ends here.” And he banged the gavel, leaving the job of assigning the agencies to the Spaniards, who take over their 6-month term in the rotating EU Presidency on January 1.

It was only after the summit leaders had started for home that they realized there was some small print in the final Belgian-drafted text of their summit conclusions, suggesting to some that the Belgians and their Dutch neighbors had planned the breakdown all along.

Pending a future decision, the new HQ of Eurojust, the European Justice system, will be provisionally based in The Hague. And the new European Food Agency, which has to start work soon, will provisionally be based in Brussels. And as they say in France, nothing endures quite so long as the provisional.