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Last Updated: Friday, 14 October 2005, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
UK trims Hampton Court summit plan
By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News website

Hampton Court Palace
Opulent Hampton Court revives EU summit traditions
Britain's decision to hold an EU summit in Hampton Court was intended to be a return to the traditional way of doing things.

In the past, EU leaders gathered regularly at a palace, chateau or scenic resort so that they could at least enjoy luxurious surroundings as they quarrelled into the early hours.

The rot set in at a summit in Nice in 2000 - a meeting still vividly remembered by journalists for its fabulous food, and rather less vividly for a major treaty - when a decision was taken to move all summits gradually to Brussels.

The charms of Barcelona, Biarritz, Florence and Corfu were abandoned for a granite-and-concrete block next to a roundabout in Brussels, with subterranean bunkers for the press.

Fireside Chat

So Hampton Court breaks this recent pattern - and for splendour it certainly caps the last royal venue, Belgium's Laeken palace, visited by EU leaders in December 2001.

The 27 October summit, half-way through the UK's six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, was also meant to hark back in another way to an earlier age.

The British idea was that memories of the rancorous June summit in Brussels would be banished at a banquet, followed by a late-night fireside chat, among King Henry VIII's opulent tapestries.

The issue of the 2007-13 budget would be kept off the agenda, to prevent tempers rising, and the leaders would be spared the stress of having to make any decisions.

Instead, they would puff cigars and exchange visions of the EU's future, in the way they once did when there was only a handful of member states instead of today's 25.

Ghosts

But this part of the scheme has been blown out of the water.

Some leaders, including French President Jacques Chirac, did not want to stay the night - and evidently some are itching to continue the row over the budget exactly where they left off four months ago.

It has been an almost invisible presidency so far, and Mr Blair is rather embarrassed
John Palmer, European Policy Centre
There will be no dinner, just a working lunch, little time for fires or cigars, and the leaders will heading for nearby Heathrow no later than 6pm.

Clearly they won't be around long enough to see any of the palace's ghosts.

It's also possible they won't have time to see a number of the features that make Hampton Court a showcase for European cultural cross-fertilisation.

These include:

  • Belgium - the tapestries, some of the most opulent ever produced, and enough of them to cover six tennis courts.
  • Italy - Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar series, nine of the most important Italian Renaissance paintings in the world.
  • France - a 17th Century wrought iron screen by UK-based French designer Jean Tijou.
  • Holland - orange trees originally planted by William III - a Dutch prince who became Britain's monarch - to symbolise the Dutch House of Orange.
  • Portugal - an alley of lime trees planted by Charles II for his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza.

Maze

The UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, wants the leaders to focus on how the EU can remain competitive, yet preserve its social model, in a globalised world.

Hampton Court maze
Hampton Court maze: Can the EU avoid a dead end this time?
If they decide, nonetheless, to talk about the fate of the European constitution, they may find the palace's Wilderness Garden an appropriate location.

And then there is the maze, which could almost be a hand-picked symbol of where the EU finds itself in 2005.

But for John Palmer, political director of the European Policy Centre in Brussels, this summit is less about the EU's search for direction than Tony Blair's search for an answer to critics of his presidency.

"It has been an almost invisible presidency so far, and Mr Blair is rather embarrassed by the chorus of people asking what is being done about the constitution, about the budget, and about economic reform," he says.

"It's a maze in which the presidency is in the middle, wondering how to get out, rather than one where visitors are outside trying to get in."




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