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EU: Commission To Announce Eastern Choices

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 14 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - After a frantic week of high-level wrangling, the European Union's Executive Commission is due to announce Wednesday its recommendations on which of the 10 Central and East European candidate nations should begin membership negotiations early next year.

Press reports late last week indicated that the Commission had already decided at a Thursday (July 10) meeting to invite Cyprus and five Eastern nations to join the first wave of accession talks. The five Eastern countries named in the reports were the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. The other five, said to be consigned to a future second wave, are Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.

But caution is advisable in dealing with Commission decisions taken behind closed doors and then leaked to the press. First of all, none of the reports cited any Commission or EU official by name. Second, it is known that some commissioners and Commission President Jacques Santer initially sought to limit the Eastern nations to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - the same three invited last week by NATO to begin accession talks in two months. Finally, the Commission is due to hold another meeting tomorrow (July 15), which conceivably could prove to be the crucial get-together.

In any event, Santer will make the official announcement not in Brussels, the EU's headquarters, but in Strasbourg, where the European Parliament is holding its monthly session this week --and where the Commission will meet tomorrow. The Parliament will then debate the Commission's recommendations and deliver its own opinion. Both recommendations will next go forward to the EU's 15 member states, which are due to make the final decision at their mid-December summit in Luxembourg. The members' decision is the only one that is really decisive.

The Commission's opinions on the 10 Eastern candidates are a part of its long-awaited "Agenda 2000," a document of some 1,200 pages that took more than a year to prepare. Agenda 2000 will not only contain detailed opinions on the 11 candidate states. It will also deal with all questions involved in the EU's planned enlargement to nearly twice its present size in the next decade, particularly the projected cost of the expansion to the organization's members.

Agenda 2000 is likely as well to propose drastic changes in the EU's two most expensive programs, its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the so-called structural and regional funds the organization provides to less prosperous members like Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Together, the CAP and structural-regional funds eat up close to 85 percent of the EU's $100 billion budget. For enlargement to go forward, they must be thoroughly reformed through decisions taken by consensus among the 15. Otherwise the EU will end up paying huge subsidies to nine million Polish farming families, just as it does today to French, German and British farmers. That is simply not feasible.

But the EU's recent record on critical internal reforms does not bode well for future agreement on reforming the CAP and the system of funding poorer members. At their Amsterdam summit last month, the 15 were unable to agree on basic institutional reforms equally necessary for an enlarged Union. Instead of streamlining the 20-member Executive Commission, for example, the summit decided to defer the problem until the EU numbered more than 20 members. Similarly, the 15 got nowhere on trying to work out a system of extended qualified majority voting on important issues that is indispensable to the smooth functioning of an expanded Union.

The Commission's Agenda 2000 will lay out in detail the reasons why all these reforms are necessary before the EU can open its doors to 11 new members within 10 years. But judging by its reported feuding last week, the Commission itself is far from the non-political executive it was created to be.

Of the Commission's 20 members today, 10 are from the EU's five largest states - Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, with two commissioners each. The others are from the 10 smaller members, which have one commissioner each. All the commissioners are supposed to represent the views of their particular sectors - finance, external relations, agriculture and the like. That's why they are called international civil servants. But last week's press reports indicated that many commissioners simply acted on behalf of their home governments, that is, as national civil servants.

There is no reform short of a total overhaul that can change that kind of behavior, said to be standard for the Commission. Increasingly divided, the EU is clearly not up to reforming, no less overhauling itself. Agenda 2000 will lay down the challenges, but it's far from certain the dispirited Union is up to facing them.