Slanging at the sauna summit

Talks on improved co-operation succeeded despite rows over crude self-interest - thanks to Finnish eccentricity and pragmatism
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By Stephen Castle in Tampere

By Stephen Castle in Tampere

17 October 1999

THEY DO things differently in Finland, even the politicians. In the rest of Europe, summit debates tend to last late into the night, but on Friday, the Finnish chairman, Premier Paavo Lipponen, abruptly adjourned the first day of the European summit at 4pm.

Finland's first-ever Euro-summit could so easily have been a disaster, and it took lavish doses of eccentricity and Finnish pragmatism to save the day. It was entirely in keeping that yesterday's draft summit conclusions went first, not to the journalists waiting in the cavernous and characterless press room, but to those hacks in the nearby sauna.

This was the first full European Council ever hosted by Finland, which has the EU presidency for the first time. And it was, according to locals, the biggest event of its kind in Tampere since 1905, when Lenin and Stalin first met in the city at a conference of Russian leftists. At times, the atmosphere at this gathering seemed equally conspiratorial and confusing, even if this is now the land of Nokia rather than the "Red Tampere" of old.

But, almost miraculously, when leaders left Tampere at lunchtime yesterday, most proclaimed themselves happy. Britain had signed up to a common European policy on asylum, justice and cross-border crime, described by the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, as the EU's next "great project of integration". It sets in place the plan for an unprecedented degree of EU co-operation, although Britain managed to water down some parts it did not like.

How had the displays of acrimony that marred the start of the conference given way to a constructive summit? For the first day, crude national self-interest and a series of rows dragged attention away from the official objective of creating a common asylum policy and a European judicial area. Tony Blair was one of the main offenders, hijacking the opportunity of a meeting with other heads of government to grandstand over France's refusal to lift the ban on British beef.

The private encounter lasted no more than a few minutes on the way into the Vapriikki conference centre, a former locomotive factory, and took the form of a ritualised exchange of views. The public outcome was a slanging match, with Mr Blair denouncing French action as "entirely unacceptable".

Another private row took place over ambitious Franco-German plans to invest big powers in Javier Solana, the EU's new foreign policy supremo. And there was a formal apology to Mr Schröder after some unguarded Finnish remarks about demands for more German translation facilities.

Most of the bickering, however, was irrelevant to the main business of the conference: new co-operation in Europe on justice and home affairs. When the summit came to focus on the issues for which it was convened, it was widely judged a success. That, in turn, was largely because of low to subterranean expectations. Most delegations were privately sceptical about what would actually be achieved and, even on Friday night, were predicting a bland agreement dictated by the lowest common denominator.

On the other hand, fears of a hardline "policeman's summit" had alarmed more liberal critics. With Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, warning that the summit could be judged "repressive", the Finns had a difficult job convincing refugee groups that this was not all about locking the poor out of "Fortress Europe".

Even one Finnish diplomat conceded that the summit began with a "rather bad atmosphere", but what came out of it was more concrete than expected by one set of critics, and less threatening than feared by others. The initiatives, which include plans for EU countries to recognise each others' court judgements, to scrap extradition for those convicted of crimes, to inaugurate a new body of national prosecutors and to step up police co-operation, came with a timetable, and will be reviewed in 2001. There will also be a "scoreboard" system to check progress.

Fears, voiced mainly by Britain, that this would erode national sovereignty were dealt with by a dose of Finnish pragmatism. Out went references to a "harmonised" system. A plan to share the costs of asylum throughout the EU was fudged.

People worried about the authoritarian nature of the event were partially mollified by a deal to treat genuine asylum-seekers better. Not only should there be minimum standards for processing applications, but successful asylum-seekers should, the leaders decided, gain "the same level of rights and obligations as EU citizens", and the chance to obtain full nationality.

Veteran diplomats were quietly impressed. As one put it: "To those who said it wasn't worth having this summit, the answer is that this would never have been achieved [otherwise]." Finns, of course, put it another way. "The heads of government," said one diplomat, "agreed a statement which was concrete. Let's hope they understood what they were signing."