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East: The EU Touches On Expansion Issues At Cardiff Summit

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 16 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The two-day European Union summit in the Welsh capital of Cardiff that ended this afternoon will surely not go down in history as one of the EU's most productive meetings. The leaders of the Union's 15 member states made no major substantive decisions, deferring action on critical issues affecting the EU's planned expansion to Central and Eastern Europe until after elections are held in Germany in late September.

But Cardiff will be remembered for two relatively minor events, one touching indirectly and the other directly on the interests of the 10 Eastern candidate nations.

First, the summit made official the EU's coming turn away from further internal integration and toward greater decentralization. The change was effectively announced last week in a joint letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the summit host, from German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac. At Cardiff, the three leaders joined forces to persuade their colleagues to schedule a special summit in October, during Austria's presidency, to examine what they believe is the excessive concentration of power in Brussels at the expense of national governments. Their success confirms that the EU the Eastern candidates will join sometime early next century will not be the federalist-minded group to which they applied for membership soon after the collapse of European communism.

The other memorable event at Cardiff was the first public avowal by a high EU official that none of the Eastern candidates -- not even the five which have already begun negotiations (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia) -- can expect to attain membership before 2005. In separate remarks to the assembled leaders and to journalists yesterday, European Parliament President Jose Maria Gil-Robles said entry before that date would not be possible for two reasons: the long preparatory period necessary to prepare applicant nations for EU regulations and practices, and the Union's own need to reform its institutions and policies before expansion begins.

That enlargement will not actually get underway for at least another six years has long been the view of senior EU bureaucrats who deal with both sets of problems. But their voices went largely unheard in the din of repeated public promises of entry by 2000 that Kohl, Chirac and other EU leaders made in recent years. For citizens of the 10 Eastern nations, the illusion of earlier entry was also sustained by some of their own leaders, who have often spoken of 2000 or 2002 as realistic dates. If Eastern leaders listened to their senior bureaucrats dealing with concrete issues, they surely knew better.

The biggest pre-expansion problem for the EU remains the failure to agree on reforms to its internal structures and policies. All members agree that an overhaul is necessary for the smooth functioning of an organization that intends to jump from 15 to 26 members (including candidate Cyprus). But how to go about it is another matter. At their Amsterdam summit a year ago, which formally committed them to expansion, the 15 were unable to reach accord on basic reforms, and simply put them off until the first Eastern candidates were ready for entry. There have since been many second thoughts about that decision, with France, Italy and Belgium joining in a statement saying reforms must precede, not follow, enlargement.

A month after the Amsterdam Treaty was signed, the EU's Executive Commission issued 3,000 pages of so-called Agenda 2,000 reform proposals for policies ranging from agriculture to regional spending. But the leaders of the 15 have not yet seriously grappled with the Commission's suggestions. At Cardiff, their foreign ministers gave them a cursory look, but again put off action -- this time for another nine months.

In March of next year, during Germany's presidency, another EU summit will be convened to deal both with the Commission's proposals and with Amsterdam's unfinished business -- structural reforms like extending majority voting and reducing the unwieldy size of the Commission. That may be tougher to do then than it would have been a year ago because another big problem has since arisen.

Germany, the EU's biggest net contributor, is demanding almost a one-third reduction in its support, now estimated at about $6,500 million annually. The Netherlands, Austria and Sweden are also pressing for a reduction in their payments. At the same time, poorer members like Spain, Portugal and Greece, which have grown used to EU funding, insist that no cuts be made in their allocations. They say they cannot be expected to pay to allow even poorer Eastern states into the EU.

Just before Cardiff, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the EU, in his phrase, "was on course for decisions on these (reform) issues by the spring of 1999." After Cardiff, the EU's course seems likely to be a stormy one.