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EU: Brief News Items

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 11 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The leaders of France and Germany, the European Union's erstwhile bilateral engine of integration, this week called for less, not more, movement toward a European central state, an important reflection of how much the EU has changed character in recent years. The EU's Executive Commission yesterday took the first step toward lifting the ban on the import of British beef imposed more than two years ago after the discovery of "mad-cow" disease in British cattle. And the EU has decided on a new selection process for naming so-called European Cultural Capitals, beginning in 2005, that will allow the 10 Central and East European candidate states to be included even before they attain partial or full membership in the Union.

These three events made few headlines in either the West or East European press, but they are significant nonetheless. Here, in another one of our periodic reports of EU developments, is a brief account of each:

A call for a more decentralized and more populist EU

--In an unusually strong sign of the times, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl have called for a more decentralized and more populist EU that would be closer to its citizens and more respectful of the 15-nation group's political and cultural diversities. In a joint letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, current EU president, the two leaders wrote that, in their blunt words, "it cannot be the aim of EU policy to develop a European central state."

That patently anti-federalist language would have been unimaginable for Chirac's predecessor, Socialist Francois Mitterrand, even as late as 1995, the last year of his presidency. So too would it have been for Kohl, who for most of his 16 years in office led the fight for greater European integration within the EU.

But Gaullist Chirac is a life-long believer in a "Europe of independent states" -- a phrase coined by his mentor, Charles de Gaulle. And Kohl, fighting to attain an unprecedented fifth term as chancellor in general elections three-and-a-half months from now, is said by German officials to have agreed to push for more regional and national power at the expense of Brussels. He is doing so, the (unnamed) officials say, in order to appease Euro-skeptics within his own conservative coalition, notably in Bavaria.

The Chirac-Kohl letter -- made available to journalists in Brussels earlier this week (June 8) -- asked Blair to use next week's EU summit (June 15-16) in the Welsh capital Cardiff to correct what they called "questionable developments (such as) a tendency of some institutions to distance themselves from citizens." It endorsed the British-backed principle of "subsidiarity," which would shift decisions from Brussels to member states whenever possible. And it urged an overhaul of what the two leaders described as the EU's "present mass of regulatory instruments."

The EU institution clearly targeted in the letter, its Executive Commission, was quick to react. Spokesman Thierry Daman denied (June 9) the Commission meddled unnecessarily in the lives of 370 million EU nationals, calling Chirac and Kohl's comments unwarranted. But Daman also said that Commission President Jacques Santer shares the Chirac-Kohl approach and is studying how the EU can legislate less.

The Chirac-Kohl letter also upset some smaller EU members, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, which have always considered a powerful and assertive Commission as support against the aspirations of bigger neighbors like France and Germany. Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo said the letter contained what he called "gratuitous criticism" and complained of its vagueness.

The first step toward lifting the ban on British beef exports

-- Yesterday the European Commission was active on another front, when it took the first step toward lifting the ban on British beef exports imposed more than two years ago at the height of Europe's "mad-cow" scare. Mad-cow disease, more precisely known as BSE (for bovine spongiform encephalopathy), is a brain-wasting cattle ailment that has been linked to an equally fatal human condition, CJD (for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease). EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler said that "British beef is (now) safe," although he added that strict conditions would apply to its return to EU and world markets. The conditions include exporting meat from cattle both killed in approved slaughter-houses and young enough not to have been fed with the ground remains of sheep and other animals -- considered the chief cause of BSE and banned by the British two years ago. So-called "animal passports" will also be needed to ensure cattle come from BSE-free herds.

Prime Minister Blair welcomed the step but warned, in his words, that "there's still a long way to go...until we through all the stages of the European negotiation." The next stage is consideration tomorrow of the Commission's proposal by a panel of veterinary experts from all EU states. If they are divided, the lifting of the ban will be put to a vote by EU agricultural ministers.

The whole process could take months. The German government in particular is wary about resuming British beef sales, fearful of a consumer -- and voter -- backlash. Chancellor Kohl could very well hold off any endorsement of the Commission's proposal in the run-up to the late September parliamentary elections.

The EU's cultural city and now cultural capital program

--Finally, a bit of "old" news that didn't get the attention it deserved. Late last month (May 28), EU culture ministers decided to include Central and East European states as European Cultural Capitals beginning in seven years' time. Thus, as of 2005, there are likely to be two such designations each year, one from an EU member and one from Eastern candidate states. Each city so chosen will be expected to organize a program of events highlighting its cultural heritage and contemporary art scene.

The EU's cultural city and now cultural capital program, launched 15 years ago, has greatly helped put such cities as Antwerp and Lisbon on Europe's cultural -- and therefore tourist -- map. For the exceptional turn-of-the-millennium 2000, nine cities have been designated European cultural sites. They include Prague and Cracow as well as Avignon (France), Bergen (Norway), Bologna, Brussels, Helsinki, Reykjavik (Iceland) and Santiago de Compostela (Spain).