Leaders of the European Union's 15 member countries face a packed agenda when they meet Friday and Saturday at a summit in the Brussels suburb of Laeken. The leaders hope to lay the groundwork for reforms that will make the union more efficient and transparent as it expands eastward in the coming years, but they will also have to deal with more immediate issues such as the war on terrorism.
Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has outlined an ambitious program for Europe's future, but his draft has already encountered resistance from such countries as Britain, France, Denmark and Sweden for being, as one diplomat put it, "too federal."
The union has agreed to set up a year-long advisory convention, beginning next March, to debate how the EU can function effectively when up to ten new members join it in the year 2004. The convention is supposed to clarify the division of powers between the European Commission and member states and give national parliaments a bigger role in EU affairs.
Analyst Giovanni Grevi, of the European Policy Center in Brussels, says the Laeken summit marks what he calls a "crucial crossroads" for European integration in the years ahead.
"Laeken has to deliver a signal, a clear signal, defining the direction of future political integration in an enlarged Union," he said. "This is why the declaration to be adopted is crucial, and this is why I believe that, at this step, the summit will manage to meet the objective of delivering a broad mandate for the convention to be started early next year."
At issue, however, is the convention's agenda. Should it include a federal European constitution with a bill of rights, a strong European executive and a more powerful European Parliament, which Germany and Italy would like to see? Or, as France and Britain argue, should such central institutions be more limited in their scope and power be essentially kept in the hands of nation-states?
Such weighty questions often get sidetracked at European summits because of more immediate concerns such as the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and the EU's desire to become heavily involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Another problem faced by European leaders is that their ministers often kick sensitive problems they have been unable to resolve upstairs to the heads of state and government who sit on the European Council.
That might have been the case with the idea of a Europe-wide arrest warrant, part of an anti-terrorism package that was being resisted by Italy until its EU partners forced it earlier this week to go along with the program. It is still the case with Greek objections to an EU deal with non-member Turkey, which would pave the way for the EU's fledgling military force to get access to NATO hardware and intelligence for its operations.
Analyst Steven Everts of London's Center for European Reform says solving these problems takes time away from what he calls the "big-picture" issues the EU leaders are supposed to discuss at summits.
"There's a danger of these issues crowding out the other agenda," he said. "What's the solution? Perhaps create ministers for Europe in all EU member states who would be permanently based in Brussels, and they could sort of provide the follow-up and preparations in between and following European Council meetings, so you would get greater continuity.
Even if the EU wants to become more efficient, political horse-trading always enters the picture at summits like Laeken. This time, there is expected to be what one diplomat describes as "unseemly haggling" about where several new E.U. agencies should be located. The biggest prize is the European Food Authority that will start monitoring food safety next year following the crises over hoof-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease. Finland, France and Italy are all vying for that plum. But there are others, and the Belgian presidency has suggested creating even more agencies so that every country will go home satisfied.
No European summit would be complete without protesters. And the first demonstration got underway on Thursday when tens of thousands of trade unionists marched near the summit site, Laeken's Royal Palace, to demand a bigger role in shaping the EU's social policies and urge the leaders to bring down unemployment rates. On Friday, it will be the turn of anti-globalization protesters, who say EU policies are based on what they call the "American economic model of unfettered capitalism". Police, who have tightened security around the summit site, say they expect 40,000 demonstrators on Friday. But Brussels Mayor Freddy Thielemans says the city is prepared and does not expect any violence.
Mr. Thielemans says police will try to be guardians of peace instead of a military-style force. But 3,000 police officers, armed with riot gear and water cannon, are ready to go into action in case things get out of hand.