Birmingham Summit: A summit to help Major and wave flags: The main function of today's EC summit is as a public-relations exercise to soothe the doubting British, writes Sarah Lambert in Brussels

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The Independent Online
Extraordinary summits rarely are extraordinary and today's gathering of EC leaders can achieve little of substance.

The President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, said yesterday that it was being held in large part to help John Major and the British government - an admission unlikely to go down well with the other 11 EC members.

There has been much complaint since 'Black Wednesday' on 16 September breathed new life into the Conservative Party's Euro-sceptics that Britain has used the presidency entirely for its own domestic political ends. A certain amount of such behaviour is tolerated, but it has been felt by many that the fall-out from the crisis is contaminating many countries other than Britain.

Italy, too, has dropped out of the exchange rate mechanism (ERM) and has to confront social unrest that has led to public questioning of the cost and speed of closer European integration. Spain and Ireland have had to introduce exchange controls and in the case of the former, suffer a sharp devaluation. Denmark's people have rejected the treaty once and opposition to it is hardening. The French referendum only just returned a 'yes' vote; Germany is increasingly against monetary union. In such circumstances, runs the argument, the Community might have expected the presidency to have risen beyond the purely domestic.

No such discontent will be voiced today. Indeed, many countries, notably Germany, have in the build-up to Birmingham made considerable efforts through the press to support Mr Major.

This is in part because the Conservative party conference made clear to outsiders that the Prime Minister was not bluffing when he said the Government would have problems getting the Maastricht Bill through the Commons. His determination to press ahead despite the now obvious risks have reconfirmed his European credentials.

More importantly, it is vital, in the face of such public lack of confidence in the Maastricht process, that everybody should be seen to be pulling together.

The crisis in the ERM - the linchpin of monetary union and thus vital to closer political union as envisaged by the Maastricht treaty - is not on the agenda. And though, at Italy's request, brief mention will be made of it, financial ministers have not been invited to the summit. It was felt that, given the impossibility of an immediate financial solution, anything they said might destabilise the markets.

Since such a debate was to have been the raison d'etre for the summit, there is perhaps value in the argument that it is pointless for heads of government to meet at all. 'The time to wave the Euro- flag, if that's all they are going to do, was immediately after the French referendum. It's too late now,' said a senior diplomat.

So today's meeting is essentially an exercise in PR - the belated realisation that the Maastricht summit has not been correctly sold to the public that is expected to live by it. Hence the talk of subsidiarity - the devolution of power. Subsidiarity, openness, transparency and democracy are to be the summit's key words but the discussion is scheduled to last all of two hours - 10 minutes for each member state to address the problems. Attempts to introduce procedures for ensuring that subsidiarity is applied to all decision-making have been shelved until there is agreement on the criteria.

But everyone has a different idea of quite how subsidiarity should work. Today's talks constitute the first hesitant steps down a long road on which even the Edinburgh summit will probably be but a pit-stop. The British hope they have scotched suspicion that they intend to use subsidiarity as a means for reducing the power of the Commission; but the Spanish are still not convinced.

Mr Delors comes to Birmingham with a legal framework that will provide the basis of discussion and examples of where the EC might take more of a back seat. His preferred example is Commission attempts to ensure clean bathing water: if individual member-states want their citizens swimming in sewage, he has suggested the Commission has no objections. Expect others.

Yet none of this will amount to anything remotely resembling a decision. Proper politics will be reserved for a lengthy debate on how to help Yugoslav refugees face up to winter. There is potential here for a tussle. The Commission, for example, is keen that any humanitarian effort should go beyond tents and blankets and offer more money. Some members believe they have already thrown enough money at the problem.

The stalled world trade talks will also feature prominently. The French stand accused of resisting any deal that disadvantages French cereal producers, and it will be up to France's Francois Mitterrand to defend his point of view to his challengers - Messrs Major and Kohl and Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch Prime Minister. Yet even here, no one is likely to sweat: talks are still going on and no one will want to strengthen the hand of the US and prejudice their chances of success by displaying the EC's differences too openly in public.

Birmingham City Council has invested in 3,000 EC-Birmingham flags to mark the summit. They are likely to be the only tangible souvenir of today's meeting.

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