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EU: Brief News Items

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 26 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Here's another one of our periodic round-ups of significant developments in the European Union that sometimes get over-shadowed by headline-making events. They concern Turkey, a perennial aspirant for EU membership; Denmark, an independence-minded member-state due to hold a critical referendum Thursday (May 28) on the EU's planned expansion to Central and Eastern Europe; and the return to a public platform of Jacques Delors, the federalist-minded Frenchman who presided over the 15-nation group's Executive Commission for 10 years before retiring to private life in 1995.

--Turkey today again boycotted a European Union meeting designed to warm up ties between Ankara and Brussels. Their relations have been in a deep freeze since an EU summit in Luxembourg last December refused to include the Muslim nation in the Union's expansion plans. Turkey immediately denounced the EU leaders' decision as discriminatory. It has since refused all any political dialogue with the Union, including invitations to a series of meetings, two of them with Union leaders.

Today's canceled meeting of the so-called EU-Turkish Association Council had been scheduled by the European Commission as a ministerial review of the customs union set up two years ago by Brussels. The agreement was designed to bring Turkey closer to the Union without actually granting it the status of a candidate for membership. But despite a visit to Ankara last week by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook of Britain, the current EU president, Turkey said it would n-o-t attend.

Officials cited a refusal by EU member Greece, Turkey's long-time Mediterranean adversary, to withdraw its veto against turning over any EU aid to Ankara. So far, Turkey has not received a penny of the $420 million due to it under the customs accord, and its government told Cook that the release of the money was a precondition for convening the association council.

While in Ankara, Cook said that 14 of the 15 EU members wanted Turkey to have the funds and would somehow find a way of releasing them. This morning, in an implicit criticism of Greece, EU External Relations Commissioner Hans van den Broek said that "we owe that (money) to the Turks." But unless Greece lifts its veto, there seems little hope of that. The refusal five months ago by EU leaders to grant Turkey candidacy status was publicly justified by citing Ankara's bilateral disputes with Athens as well as its poor human-rights record. Many educated Turks believe that the basic reason for the EU excluding their country from membership is its fear of taking in a state with more than 60 million Muslims.

--Thursday's referendum in Denmark will determine whether or not the country ratifies last year's Amsterdam Treaty spelling out the EU's expansion to 10 Eastern nations (all 15 EU members must ratify the treaty before it can take effect). The Danish constitution requires that any treaty touching the country's sovereign decision-making must be endorsed by popular vote. Six years ago, Danes voted against the Maastricht Treaty that turned the old European Community into a Union. They changed their minds a year later, after Brussels exempted Copenhagen from some the treaty's most federalist strictures.

Recent public-opinion polls show a large plurality of Danes (47 percent) likely to approve the Amsterdam Treaty, but the gap between yes and no voters (38 percent in the polls) has narrowed in recent weeks. An 11-day general strike earlier this month, ended by government intervention, apparently has turned many workers into Amsterdam opponents. In addition, the polls reveal a widespread unease about closer union, even among those who say they will vote yes.

All this adds up to a nervous 72 hours for Denmark's social democrat-led government, which has staked its future on a yes vote. Nerves are also sensitive in Brussels, where Commissioner van den Broek said today that a rejection of Amsterdam by voters would be what he called a "setback" not only for Denmark but for the rest of Europe as well. --Jacques Delors was back in the news last week (May 19) when he publicly suggested that the EU's popularly elected Parliament be given a role in selecting the next president of the European Commission. Delors said that, in order to avoid what he described as public "indifference" to the parliament's next election 13 months from now (June 1999), each political party should propose a candidate for the Commission president who will take over in January 2000. Although EU members would make the final decision, Delors' proposal would, in effect, make the elections a vote for the Commission president as well as for the Parliament's 626 members.

Delors, himself a socialist, admitted that under his plan the president would come from the EU's most popular political group. Currently, the biggest group in the European Parliament are the socialists. That allowed Delors successor, Jacques Santer of Luxembourg, a convenient way out of the dilemma of how to react to Delors' suggestion. A Santer spokeswoman said, "he is asking himself whether the proposal would result in the candidate coming from the biggest European political party."

Santer is widely considered to be a relatively weak Commission chief, particularly in contrast to Delors' activism and strong hand as president. The former Luxembourg prime minister was chosen as a compromise candidate after wheeling and dealing among the EU's larger members states, which could not agree on a stronger choice.