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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 20:52 GMT 21:52 UK
Old fox shows his cunning

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing may be accused of being vain and past it - but the old fox has pulled off what might be looked back on as a remarkable achievement.

The drafting convention under his leadership has managed to get 25 governments to more or less agree on the framework of a constitution for the European Union.

The compromise which the draft text represents was accepted by the EU summit near Thessaloniki as a basis for negotiation and while some governments will try to pull bits of it off, it is probable that its basic structure will remain.

Giscard D'Estaing (r)
Giscard D'Estaing (r) has performed an elaborate balancing act

It may be a horse designed by a committee - but at least it has legs.

What Giscard brought to the process was an understanding that the European Union cannot move too fast without precipitating a crisis.

For example, he rapidly dropped his own idea of calling the EU "United Europe" or even "The United States of Europe". It was a battle not worth fighting and he has not fought it.

Yet nor can it stand still. The flood of new members calls for change or collapse.

'Zones of protection'

So he has thrown some red meat into the federal cage in the form of more majority voting and some grand sounding but rather ill-defined positions like European president and foreign minister.

At the same time, he has kept some tasty morsels for the nationalists by refusing to go too far towards, for example, a common foreign and defence policy.

The document lacks the simplicity and elegance of the United States constitution

And that balancing act is the secret of the draft's broad acceptance.

The document lacks the simplicity and elegance of the United States constitution. But the two are for very different purposes. One is for a country. The other is for a collection of countries. There has not been such a thing in world history before.

The summit of Thessaloniki, or really of Porto Carras, a beach resort about 100 km away, will therefore be known, among those who keep a track of these events, for marking a point along the way to a constitution.

Of course, as always in these affairs, there was the usual disagreement. They did not accept a British plan to gather refugees in so-called "zones of protection" near zones of conflict. One Greek spokesman compared the idea to concentration camps.

Several leaders had to slum it and go by car from Thessaloniki to the summit

But this meeting will also mark something else and something of significance in due course - further progress towards the extension of the EU across the Balkans.

A meeting on Saturday, after the summit itself, between the EU and several Balkan countries will point the way towards the accession of even more members.

Such a moment will be of great historical importance. World War I started in the Balkans and Europe does not want all that again.

By 2014, the names which haunted 1914 - Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia - should be safely in the EU.

Chaotic

More immediately, the Porto Carras summit serves as another example of how summits destroy European stereotypes. The stereotype this time is that a meeting in a Greek beach resort must inevitably be a thing of pleasure.

Those of us fortunate not to be there can read with interest an account by journalist Honor Mahony for the EU Observer, a website devoted to EU news:

EU delegation members arrive in a Greek Army Chinook helicopter, Porto Carras, Greece, 19 June 2003
Getting to the summit was the first hurdle

"The Thessaloniki meeting will likely go down in the annals of summit history as incredibly chaotic.

"It is set in Porto Carras... While it is quite beautiful and the sea is warm and it brims over with Greek charm, it does not hide the fact that it is in the middle of nowhere.

"Hotels are scattered all over the peninsula with some over 100 kilometres away.

"There are shuttle buses (for the journalists)... but the buses are few and far between.

"Several leaders had to slum it and go by car from Thessaloniki to the summit after torrential rain forced them to abandon plans to sweep in gracefully by helicopter.

"When journalists do emerge bleary-eyed from the press tent, their spirits are restored by the brilliant sunshine, the bluest sea and the comforting presence of Mount Athos.

"Before they get back on the bus."

The Italian job

I am reminded of other stereotype-destroying summits. The best food I can recall was at a British summit at the QE2 Conference Centre in London. The catering was by Prue Leith, with lashings of lobster and shrimp.

The worst organised was a German one in Munich. All I can remember is a vast tent where everything went wrong.

The best organised was in Milan. The Italian job was neatly done.

Do not believe European stereotypes.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"Another milestone on the road to the EU's first constitution"



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