Prague, 22 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - The results of tomorrow's special European Union summit meeting in the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk will be critical for the membership aspirations of 10 Central and East European candidate nations -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
The 10 Eastern countries have frequently been told by officials in Brussels that membership talks with some or all of them (as well as with Cyprus) will begin six months after the conclusion of the EU's current Inter-Governmental Conference. The IGC is charged with reviewing and reforming the institutions set up five years ago in the Maastricht Treaty that created the Union out of the former European Community, and laid down guidelines for future internal integration.
The IGC has been dubbed "Maastricht Two" by no less a fervent federalist than German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. But the conference -- sometimes meeting at ministerial level, sometimes with more junior diplomats -- has floundered throughout its 14 months of existence, making no perceptible substantial progress. At Noordwijk tomorrow, the IGC will in effect meet for the first time at the summit level.
The half-day, informal gathering was an initiative of the EU's current Dutch Presidency. It will serve to introduce newly-elected British Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country has traditionally been the least federalist-minded of all the EU's 15 current members. Particularly over the course of the past year or so -- just about as long as the IGC has existed -- Blair's predecessor, Conservative John Major, adopted a minimalist stance toward further internal EU integration.
The Dutch and most other EU members hope that Blair's entry onto the EU scene will provide the boost necessary for a successful conclusion -- or at least the appearance of a successful conclusion -- of the IGC. Dutch officials say that, if all goes well tomorrow, prospects for producing the final necessary consensus on Maastricht Two at a two-day formal summit meeting in Amsterdam next month will be greatly enhanced.
For the moment, those prospects do not seem bright. Two days ago, at a preparatory meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, there was much disagreement expressed over key institutional reforms to prepare the Union for almost doubling its size. These reforms include the future size of the EU's Executive Commission, the re-weighting of members' votes among small and large states, and the extension of majority voting to such sensitive areas as common foreign and security policies.
France and Germany, the EU's traditional bilateral "motor" of progress disagree over how many Commissioners should be contained in a reformed executive branch. France wants the interests of larger member states such as itself protected, Germany sides more with smaller members which want their rights preserved. The issue of re-weighting voting along population lines is similarly disputed among the smaller and larger states. And the British -- as well as the equally independent-minded Danes -- say they will never surrender their sovereignty on foreign and security questions. At Tuesday's Brussels meeting, new British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said flatly his country would not accept majority decision-making in these areas.
What's more, another sensitive security question continues to fragment the EU -- whether or not the 12-nation West European Union (WEU), a long-dormant defense policy group, should be fully integrated into the EU. On this issue, France and Germany agree and have submitted a three-phase plan for developing the WEU into the Union's military arm. But such ideas are rejected by neutral members Austria and Sweden, by semi-neutralist Finland and Ireland as well as by NATO members Britain and Denmark, which fear the Alliance's role might be weakened -- as does the U.S.
In the face of all this discord, the Dutch strategy for tomorrow's meeting is to concentrate on making whatever progress is possible in other, less controversial areas. Thus, it hoped that Britain will trade off some concessions for being able to opt out -- along with Ireland -- on proposed common internal border controls and continue to run its own immigration and asylum policies. As the Dutch see it, too, the Noordwijk meeting will involve a diplomatic feeling-out process. One official in the Hague today told RFE/RL that "we want to learn where we can come to a deal now and which points need to be left until the last round of talks by government leaders themselves" on June 16 and 17 in Amsterdam.
Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo said Tuesday that the Netherlands had so far deliberately left out of its draft treaty the big institutional questions of the balance of power between large and small states and the size of a future Executive Commission. A few hours later, his German counterpart Klaus Kinkel said these and other crucial issues were likely to remain open until what Kinkel called "the night of long knives" in Amsterdam.