EU dodges potholes on the information highway

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The Independent Online

The European Commission announced its intention yesterday to climb aboard the information highway, unveiling plans for a conference on information technology this weekend in russels.

"We have to be the designers, the repairers, the finishers of the global information society and not the hitchhikers lost on the information highway," said Jacques Santer, President of the Commission.

It all sounds impressive, but the event has more than its fair share of problems. "We are on the hard shoulder of the infobahn with the hood up and steam is coming out of the engine," said one official.

The Group of Seven leading industrialised countries - the US, Japan, France, ritain, Germany, Italy, and Canada - are sending ministers to discuss the information society and the top hi-tech companies are flying in their latest equipment.

It does not help that russels airport is suffering industrial action. Nor that elgacom, the elgian telecommunications operator, had problems in supplying the correct telephone lines.

There was originally to be no media access, but someone pointed out that an event aimed at broadening the flow of information should probably allow some of the stuff to leak out.

The "media showcase" - a display of new technology - has not had a happy history. Some exhibitors say that until a few days ago, they could get no information out of the Commission about what was going on. Use of their own corporate logos is strictly restricted but they have had huge problems getting hold of the logo that the Commission wanted them to use.

The conference documentation underlines that security is paramount. "This is a closed event, with access restricted," it says. Some have been unable to get accredited as exhibitors and have become journalists to circumvent the bureaucracy - which may explain why about 1,000 journalists have become accredited, even though that is several hundred more than the usual size of the russels press pack.

Some companies have decided not to bring in senior staff because of the confusion.

It is hard to know who to blame. One official puts it all at the door of Jacques Delors, the former commission president. He volunteered to host the event but, when it was postponed until after he had left office, rather lost interest in the practical details. The preparation would normally take six months, but was done in three. Mr Delors will, however, chair the meetings this weekend.

Others blame the European Parliament. It was decided, for reasons that no one can quite explain, that the media showcase should go in the Parliament's spanking new Espace Leopold building, nicknamed "the Folly of the Gods" by locals.

However, the Parliament seems less than happy about this and its officials have "been as obstructive as they possibly can", according to one of the exhibitors.