Unhappy EU family meets to stifle the rising panic

By Vanessa Mock
Saturday 06 February 2010 01:00

Everyone at European Union headquarters is looking on in horrified fascination at the spectacle of eurozone countries tumbling to their knees one by one. But the decision-makers here in Brussels seem too caught up by this stomach-churning show to do anything to stop it.

Calls for action have grown louder this week and the air of panic is more palpable, although panic has not broken out entirely. There seems to be an unspoken agreement to try to keep a lid on things until Thursday, when the EU's 27 leaders gather in Brussels for a special summit dedicated to reviving the European economy.

Will they be able to hammer out joint measures to restore confidence? Few think so. "It will not be a happy family reunion," said one EU diplomat. "There are too many problems in this family. Many of its members are squabbling or not even talking to one another. That could make for a very difficult lunch."

As they sit around the banqueting table, some leaders will be painfully aware that their meeting should have taken place weeks ago, when first signs of deep trouble within the eurozone appeared. Some may cast critical glances towards Herman van Rompuy, the man appointed last year to steer the ship through just such storms. The EU's inaugural President took the initiative of calling the summit but has been almost inaudible since.

Some officials can barely contain their frustration. "It's not a question of panicking less, it's a question of panicking more! Where is the leadership? There is none," cried one official.

When the money markets collapsed 18 months ago, it was fortuitous that Nicolas Sarkozy was there to take matters in hand. His country held the rotating EU presidency and he wasted no time in banging everyone's heads together to deal with the meltdown.

So far, Mr van Rompuy has displayed none of that dynamism but he may yet come good. He has been flitting between European capitals for bilateral talks. His team says he is quietly hatching a plan. But he will have to be fast and resolute if he wants to dispel growing fears that Europe is dangerously adrift without a captain to steer her to safety.

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