European leaders were trying to persuade Wim Kok, the Dutch premier, to put his name forward last night to head a review that will determine the future shape of the EU.
The Dutch Prime Minister is being pushed to become head of the convention of European and national politicians who will draw up proposals to adapt the EU's founding treaty.
That process, which begins next year, should help to resolve some of the most basic questions confronting the EU, including the division of powers between the Union and member states, and whether to create a "basic treaty" that would act as a European constitution. Final decisions will be taken by EU leaders early in 2004.
As EU leaders arrived for their summit in Laeken, Brussels, Belgian police were on alert for a mass demonstration by anti-globalisation protesters. Belgian F-16 fighter jets were on stand-by to combat any terrorist attack.
British ministers fear the summit will give the impression that the EU is "navel-gazing" rather than bridging the divide between it and its citizens. "I am not sure it is a good thing to launch a new review when Ireland has not even endorsed the treaty agreed in Nice a year ago," said one UK source.
In the battle over who should head the EU's review, there were objections to the other declared or likely candidates, who include the French ex-president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing; Jacques Delors, the French former president of the European Commission; Italy's ex-premier Guiliano Amato; and the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.
Mr Kok is due to stand down as the Dutch premier next summer but says he will not be available in time to chair the convention. However, one senior official said he could probably be persuaded to take the job "if he is asked unanimously".
Today's summit will discuss the reconstruction of Afghanistan, plans for the EU's rapid reaction force and a new EU-wide arrest warrant to fight terrorism and serious crime.
Officials are concerned the leadership and remit of the convention will lead to a bitter wrangle between leaders as they horse-trade on other issues. The all-important question of who will chair the convention is being linked to the siting of EU agencies; this will be decided as part of an overall "package" by Belgium, which holds the EU's rotating presidency. Finland, for example, is not pushing Mr Ahtisaari because it is keen for Helsinki to be the home of the new European food agency.
Some believe that France will withdraw its interest only if the food agency is given to Lille. But Spain is also competing for this prize, with Barcelona in the running, while Italy wants the agency – which will eventually have 300 staff – to be in Parma.
Other nations are queuing for a share of the spoils, which include a transport safety agency for which both France and Portugal are competing. The UK wants an EU police college to be at Bramshill, Hampshire, but Spain also wants to host it.
One diplomat said: "The Belgians are offering to house as many as 10 EU agencies in order to give something to practically everybody." Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, said "horsetrading on agencies is part of the everlasting unchanging rules of politics" and was "part of what happens in politics".
Belgium has already been rebuffed over a paper on the remit of the convention and will submit a new version today. Britain, France and the Scandinavian countries regarded the text as too federalist; other countries have been critical of the opening passage of the statement, which concedes that the EU has grown apart from its citizens and needs to improve its performance.Reuse content