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EU: Summit Ends With Watered-Down Reform Treaty

  • Joel Blocker

Amsterdam, 18 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- After two days and a long night of haggling among its 15 member states, the European Union's Amsterdam summit meeting has produced a weak, watered-down reform treaty. The document comes nowhere near enacting the basic changes the organization had agreed were necessary before its planned expansion to Central and Eastern Europe.

The text agreed upon early this morning defers for years any important changes in the organization's institutions -- the single most important goal the Union had set for itself in Amsterdam. Similarly, it delayed any changes in critical voting arrangements until new members are admitted early in the next century -- even though the new treaty was supposed to simplify decision-making to prepare the EU for a near-doubling of its ranks within the next decade.

In addition to Cyprus and Turkey, 10 Central and East European nations are seeking rapid entry into the EU -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

EU officials tried to put a brave face on the treaty's weaknessses, saying they had salvaged enough to pave the way for future Eastward expansion. A spokesman (Bob Hiensch) for Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo of the Netherlands, which holds the EU Presidency until the end of the month, put it this way to reporters: "We can now at least start with the process of enlargement (negotiations) in six months."

But EU officials also openly admitted that grander plans for basic changes in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that created the union had to be seriously diluted to win the necessary unanimous approval. They acknowledged, too, that the failure of EU leaders to resolve fully institutional reform issues will force another round of treaty revisions in the future. That means that the Amsterdam treaty, dubbed "Maastricht Two," is only a prelude to Maastricht Three, which could be held as early as 2002.

Lack of unanimity among the 15 also forced EU leaders to give up on efforts to let the Union take on a defense role, as favored by France and Germany. Opposition by several countries, led by Britain, forced the leaders to drop the initiative. British Prime Minister Tony Blair bluntly told his colleagues today: "Europe has not proved it can run a common foreign policy, let alone a common defense policy."

Unable to agree on changing the size of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, the leaders decided to keep it at the existing level of 20 until the Union itself grows to 20 members. Then, it will adopt a system that grants just one commissioner to each country. Currently, the big countries have two appointees in Brussels and the small states one.

Other major issues that divided the leaders were plans to institute qualified majority voting on foreign-policy issues instead of requiring consensus, as is now the case, and reweighting the votes of small and large countries on issues for which votes are taken. The Union's five biggest states -- Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain -- wanted to have their share of the votes in the Council of Ministers increased to bring them more in line with the size of their population. But the smaller states blocked any such move.

There were some modest positive reforms contained in the Amsterdam treaty. The leaders agreed on proposals to end all border controls, while allowing Britain, Ireland and Denmark to opt out. They also passed a compromise version of the so-called flexibility clause, which will allow some members to move toward closer cooperation more quickly than others, if they so choose -- but only in a limited range of areas.

The application of the flexibility clause will need unanimous agreement in foreign and security policy. But it can be triggered by a qualified majority of EU countries in the fields of justice and home affairs.

While enlargement negotiations are to due to begin in early 1998, the new treaty still must be ratified by the legislatures of the current EU members or through popular referendums. That process could take as long as two years.