I see that the European Council is about to roll into town again. No, the photo is not a satirical comment about our leaders – it’s just that the replacement of metal rubbish bins with cardboard boxes on the Metro platforms is a sure-fire sign that the EU’s Prime Ministers are on their way. I presume that this is done for security reasons… unless putting up signs for ‘waste’ in 3 languages is a subversive form of protest from the STIB (Brussels’ transport authority)?
Anyway, this set me thinking about what would be occupying the thoughts of our leaders this time. Of course, there are always two agendas – the one which is prepared, months in advance, by a host of diligent civil servants through a process of negotiation, discussion, and deal-making. And then there is the agenda which will actually get discussed – which is determined by whatever is on the rolling TV news channels the night before. Al-Jazeera will be trumping Euronews this time, I think.
Nothing wrong with that – Egypt is on the brink of monumental changes, and the EU should try to make sure that it has its diplomatic ducks lined up, and does what it can to encourage democratic reform. European Summits are almost always sidetracked by crises, and this time it really is a big one, with implications stretching well beyond Egypt itself.
But I do wonder whether the Heads of State & government who gather in Brussels don’t feel more comfortable dealing with international crises, rather than domestic policies. After all, it’s probably a little easier to pull together a few lines about democracy and the people of Egypt, than to find the solutions to Europe’s energy and innovation problems (which is what the Summit is supposed to be about). Because in the end, the EU won’t solve Egypt’s problems (nor should it). But the EU does have to solve its own problems.
Perhaps this is unfair: it’s inevitable that all the real work of a Summit is done long before the leaders arrive. You can’t actually negotiate an agreement in a meeting of 27 Prime Ministers. By the time you’ve worked out who wants coffee, who needs a whiskey, and how to seat the Italian Prime Minister away from the Finnish Prime Minister (you can never be too careful), it’s time to go home. And the Prime Ministers themselves are not the experts on the policy detail, they leave that to their Ministers and civil servants.
So what use are such special Summits, when all the work is done in advance, the agenda usually overtaken by news events, and the leaders have very little time to discuss real issues?
There are lots of serious reasons I could give, but the less serious one I shall choose is this: European Summits are a way of giving structure and meaning to the lives of the inhabitants of EuroBrussels. They give us the framework around which the EU can build the rest of its calendar. They bring meaning to our lives.
Ministerial meetings are timed to prepare papers for the Prime Ministers to approve, or to react to their latest edicts. European Commission roadmaps need a European Council meeting to exist, otherwise they would never get published. NGOs and lobbyists need them to bring a focal point to their campaigns.The press needs them to persuade their editors to give them more space than the usual half column buried on page 13.
European Summits are very like royal visits. They are designed to make us all feel important, to feel like we matter. We must be, otherwise they wouldn’t keep coming, surely? So we shouldn’t be asking what they are going to actually produce. We should just be grateful that they keep coming to visit us. In fact, we should really offer a present as a token of our gratitude. Traditionally (well in my country, anyway), a royal visit is marked with a bouquet of flowers. But 27 of those don’t come cheap, and it’s a bit short notice. Hmmm… I think I could probably find 27 very nice cardboard boxes though. Very useful for putting all those policy proposals in. They come with a pre-printed label in three languages too.