Deadlock on sites for institutions mars European summit

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A summit to set the EU on a new path ended in disappointment yesterday as leaders failed to agree on the locations of a number of key institutions.

The fractious end to the meeting of EU leaders in Laeken came as delegates tried to settle a deal on the future sites of various European agencies, including the proposed food safety authority.

But the summit ended in deadlock, casting a shadow over an event that had begun well by setting up a new convention with an ambitious agenda to debate the future of the European Union.

By Saturday morning the Belgian presidency of the EU had established a consensus on a controversial text laying out the remit of the convention on Europe's future, and won agreement that its president would be the 75-year-old former president of France, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

That proved to be child's play compared with the task of getting a consensus on who should win the lucrative prospect of hosting several institutions. Finland, which has no EU agency, had set its heart on bringing the European Food Safety Authority to Helsinki and its normally low-key premier, Paavo Lipponen, put his domestic credibility on the line by promising to do so.

To reach an agreement, Belgium put together a package offering no fewer than 13 different agencies, some to be created by contracting out parts of the European Commission.

Under this deal to give the food agency to Helsinki, Britain would have become host to a European police college at Bramshill in Hampshire. Eurojust, which assists with judicial co-operation between states, would have been sited in The Hague in The Netherlands.

For its part, Italy would have been given an agency to exchange information on border controls. And France would have got no fewer than four agencies, including one for rail safety in Lille. That proved unacceptable to Italy and France, and decisions were postponed until the next summit, which will take place in the spring under the auspices of a Spanish EU presidency.

At a press conference, Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian EU president, declared: "I don't think our citizens would understand if, after coming up with a promising declaration on the future of Europe, we found ourselves falling back into the old ways. I refused to get involved in horsetrading."

For Belgium there was a bonus to taking the high ground as the food authority will now have to start work temporarily from 1 January in Brussels. Eurojust is the only other agency that will set up on a provisional basis in The Hague.

Those with long memories will recall that Brussels was never officially chosen as the site for the European Commission; it was merely put there several decades ago on a "temporary" basis because of a lack of agreement on another site.