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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 18:19 GMT 19:19 UK
All small talk at EU summit

By Peter Biles
BBC correspondent in Thessaloniki

Protester runs from tear gas in nearby Greek town of Neos Marmaras
Protesters have become a regular side-show at such summits

It might have been quiet and simple.

The Porto Carras resort complex lies in one of the furthest corners of the European Union.

The EU leaders meeting here on the isolated Halkidiki Peninsula, 70 miles (112 km) south of Thessaloniki, have had the reassurance of being in a private, secure location.

However, the logistics of staging this three-day summit have amply illustrated just how unwieldy the European Union has become, as it expands to accommodate 10 new members in 2004.

Tight security

There has been a lot at stake for the Greek authorities in hosting the event that marks the end of their six-month presidency of the EU.

For the heads of government, there is precious little time for serious discussion

This will be seen as an important dress rehearsal for the Greek security forces before the Olympic Games in Athens next year, and 15,000 army and police were deployed around the site of the EU summit.

Sometimes though, the best laid preparations go awry.

The plan had been to fly all the EU heads of government by helicopter from Thessaloniki Airport to Porto Carras.

When poor weather and low cloud grounded the helicopters briefly on Thursday afternoon, the EU leaders were forced to make their journey by road, so causing major traffic delays on the peninsula.

Police had been taking up positions along the main road throughout the week.

Every 330 feet (100m), patrol cars were parked and officers with binoculars watched the surrounding countryside.

Some shopkeepers in the nearby town of Neos Marmaras boarded up their premises, fearful of unrest involving anti-globalisation protestors who have become a regular side-show at international summits.

As demonstrators tried to reach Porto Carras on Friday, the police opened fire with tear gas.

Exchange of views

Clustered inside the security cordon were 2,600 journalists.

EU delegation members arrive in a Greek Army Chinook helicopter, Porto Carras, Greece, 19 June 2003
For some reaching Porto Carras was only part of the problem

It is thought to be the largest-ever EU media gathering, and with European Union enlargement now less than a year away, the facilities they require have had to expand accordingly.

It is also customary for the host nation to provide complimentary meals and refreshments for the television, radio and newspaper journalists during an EU summit.

Hundreds of Greek catering staff were employed to ensure an never-ending supply of food and drink in the vast media centre.

For the heads of government, there is precious little time for serious discussion at these gatherings, let alone any real negotiation with their European counterparts.

Some only stay about 24 hours.

The difficulty in reaching Porto Carras for such a brief exchange of views was not the only problem.

The British delegation discovered that the planned refurbishment of the room allocated to the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had not been completed on the morning of his arrival.

Panes of glass had to be hastily found and fitted in the windows before Mr Blair checked in.

'Recipe for inconsistency'

The EU roadshow or "travelling circus", is coming to an end.

If Europe's leaders agree on the draft constitution which has been drawn up over the past 16 months, the EU could soon have a full-time president, based in Brussels.

The concept of rotating the presidency among member states every six months will vanish.

"The musical chairs of the presidency is a recipe for inconsistency", said the UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, this week, as he launched an impassioned defence of the blueprint for the new Europe.

As the EU attempts to streamline itself to accommodate its new members, Mr Straw says EU leaders have the job of explaining Europe to people "in simple terms".

Despite the very best efforts of the Greek authorities, the Porto Carras summit has been the complete antithesis of anything simple.

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