EU leaders locked in dispute over Belgian 'waffle' at Ghent summit

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The Independent Online

One is renowned for his strange syntax and lack of public relations skills; the other holds interminable press conferences, expressing the same message in three languages.

Last night, two of the European Union's most senior figures were locked in one of the EU's more bizarre disputes in recent memory.

The European Commission president, Romano Prodi, has threatened to boycott EU summit press conferences in protest against the long-winded speeches of Guy Verhofstadt, the Prime Minister of Belgium, which holds the EU presidency.

The dispute, inevitably called a protest over Belgian "waffle", was the second argument picked by Mr Prodi in less than four days over the handling of last Friday's EU summit in Ghent. The irony is that Mr Prodi's main handicap has been his stumbling speech and inability to communicate.

Although the dispute was dismissed in Brussels as trivial, there is growing unease at the EU's ability to shoot itself in the foot at a time of international crisis.

Last Thursday, Mr Prodi criticised Britain, France and Germany for holding a separate mini-summit before the meeting of the 15 member states in Ghent. Now Mr Verhofstadt is in the firing line. With both his French and Dutch-speaking media to cultivate, he speaks in both languages, with occasional interventions in English, and is prone to lengthy orations at press conferences attended jointly with the Commission.

At his first briefing last Friday, Mr Verhofstadt spoke for so long that there was almost no time for questions and Mr Prodi decided to skip the second, later, press conference.

Yesterday, the Commission's chief spokesman, Jonathan Faull, revealed there was history to the dispute and that Mr Prodi wrote to Mr Verhofstadt on 12 October asking him not to hog news conferences. According to Mr Prodi's office, the Belgian premier did not reply.

The Verhofstadt style "doesn't leave much time for others to intervene", Mr Faull said, adding that "Mr Prodi prefers to make a short statement and then take questions". The Commission says its president's absence may be repeated at the next scheduled summit due to be held in Laeken, near Brussels, on 14-15 December.

Yesterday, Alain Gerlache, Mr Verhofstadt's spokesman, said the Belgian leader "would be happy to sort things out with Mr Prodi", adding that the two talked by phone yesterday.