EU chief Van Rompuy in line of summit fire

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Europe's leaders lock horns Thursday with trouble brewing over how to prevent a repeat of the Greek debt crisis and what to do about France's Roma expulsions.

European Union chief Herman Van Rompuy is losing friends and influence after being charged with producing only "nebulous" ideas and few concrete propositions for bringing into line countries whose spending blitzes threaten partners' economies.

Further divisions over plans to offer flood-ravaged Pakistan a string of aid concessions, not to mention Italy's theatrical blocking of a deal to throw open trade with South Korea, mean a cloud is hanging over the first big date of the new EU season.

In the words of one senior EU ambassador, Van Rompuy's preparations for the Brussels summit are "underwhelming."

"We just expect a progress report" from the President of the European Council of leaders, the ambassador said, amid moves by some member states to delay Van Rompuy's much-hyped "task force" report on cross-border economic governance, which has an October deadline.

Alluding to the spectacle of countries reluctant to commit to potentially costly rule-changes ganging up on a figure who has scant room for manoeuvre. he said Van Rompuy "would feel he has made the progress he can."

Given that Slovakia has already wriggled out of a commitment to loan Greece money -- an uncomfortable truth euro currency partners prefer so far to gloss over -- the momentum for action has clearly faded in line with the short-term economic outlook.

A "settlement" on EU nations giving each other advance sight of budget plans falls well short of early radical runners now discarded, such as hitting budget busters where it hurts or, as Germany wanted, removing voting rights from the worst offenders.

Conclusions drawn up for leaders to endorse, and seen by AFP, only "underline the need to keep (up) the momentum."

There is "still quite a bit of disagreement on sanctions," the diplomat said, and "intensive work" is required if concrete decisions due in October are to live up to the fanfare that accompanied the launch of Van Rompuy's first big project.

International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is throwing in one euro for every two the EU aims at Greece or potentially Ireland, is not happy either.

In a pre-summit nudge, he said that Europe's powerbrokers had to take "courageous measures" to strengthen cross-border economic controls.

The "danger," if they fail, is that European nations will "no longer be able to compete with the world's most dynamic countries," he said this week.

At a time when the EU machine in Brussels is pushing for budget increases described as "detached from reality," Van Rompuy is also under siege from his great institutional rival, the European Commission, which is plotting to trump his governance proposals early next month.

The current Belgian EU chair said on Wednesday that it hoped Jose Manuel Barroso, who heads the commission that proposes new EU legislation, would take into account the political difficulties Van Rompuy faces before laying out thunderous recommendations.

These are many and varied, with moves against French President Nicolas Sarkozy over the Roma round-up likely after the commission's stark threat on Tuesday to take legal action against Paris.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron is fighting for Pakistan to become the dominant issue, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stands accused of trying to take the summit hostage over South Korea, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is refusing to abandon her drive to wallop the financial sector with new taxes.

The eastern bloc of former Soviet Communist countries are also on the case, seeking concessions in debt accounting to offset Western-style pension reform costs -- as well as more generally deriding a miserable return in the competition for juicy new EU ambassador jobs in major world capitals.

© 2010 AFP

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