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European Union: Vienna Summit Sets Battle Lines

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Vienna, 14 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Gone are the emperors, gone are the kings, nobles and field marshals in their splendid uniforms. Remaining is the marbled splendor of the Vienna Hofburg, seat of the Hapsburg dynasty. It is a reminder of a world more opulent, but also more dangerous, where war and peace had equal weight as the twin instruments of grand diplomacy.

At the weekend (Dec. 11/12) the halls of the Hofburg were filled with the leaders of the new Europe, the men -- and women -- uniformly in grey suits who head the democracies which now stretch from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, from the Baltic to the Adriatic.

The occasion was the European Union's end of year summit, at which leaders of the 10 eastern candidate states were invited to a special work session and lunch.

The purpose of the summit was to put in motion the "Vienna Strategy for Europe", a suitably grandiose title for the setting.

The summit agreed the EU should spend the next six months developing a European employment pact aimed at cutting persistent high joblessness. It also decided that there should be greater economic policy coordination, and that common strategies on Russia, Ukraine, the Mediterranean region and the Western Balkans should be developed. These were predictable themes, but the real heart of the summit was the intractable problem of how to get the budgetary affairs of the 15-member EU in order. Successful internal reform appears to be an essential stepping stone toward eastward expansion. The new German government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has openly linked one with the other, saying expansion is unthinkable without proper reform.

Accordingly, the summit confirmed a deadline of end March for political agreement on the package of reforms known as Agenda 2000. Not that anything was solved on that topic at Vienna. But the main lines of the struggle were made clear, and the first salvoes in the battle were fired.

A somber and serious Schroeder said Bonn can no longer be the one to pay for practically everything in the EU. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair managed to radiate warmth while telling his European friends that Britain is willing to do anything -- expect pay back money into the EU, which is the only thing that counts. France's President Jacques Chirac said that Britain's stance is contrary to the community spirit, and that this spirit must be respected. Spain, Portugal and Greece stuck to the line that no matter who sacrifices what, they can't sacrifice their special funding on account of East Europeans.

Hardly promising grounds for an easy summit in March, during the German EU presidency. But now, after years of procrastination, the reforms will have to be real, and will be painful. A relaxed Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman shrugged, and told journalists: "the EU has always been surrounded by dangers, and it always comes through."

The presence of the easterners at the summit had an important symbolism. The present and future members of the union, some 26 heads of state of government (eds: that total includes Cyprus) sat around a table and talked about progress toward membership.

The summit's final document gave encouragement to all candidates, without making any commitments to speeding up the start of negotiations with the second, less advanced group of nations. An earlier draft of the final document contained oblique references to the progress achieved by some of the second-level countries, but these did not appear in the final version, probably so that the remainder would not feel a sense of discrimination.

The eastern leaders seemed content, giving mostly upbeat press conferences. Poland appealed again for a firm entry date, with Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek saying that once EU internal reforms are out of the way, the Finnish EU presidency in the second half of 1999 should set a date. The Finns plan to concentrate on expansion issues.

Slovak Foreign Ministry State Secretary Jan Figel was not so pressing, noting that it had taken Spain nine years of effort to achieve the same goal. Figel said Slovakia should not be impatient.

Czech Prime Minister Zeman took the same line, saying that the date of a marriage was not so significant as whether it was happy later.

Both Slovak and Polish leaders were asked by journalists whether they feared a rise in German nationalism. The questions seemed rather artificially based on Schroeder's tough line on expansion compared with that of former chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said with a smile that he is "not too worried", and that its probably a good thing that Germany is the next EU president (from Jan. 1) so that the Germans have more contact with the accession issue.

The Poles however appeared disconcerted by the question. The atmosphere was suddenly as if a ghost had entered the room. Prime Minister Buzek avoided a direct answer, instead launching into a long response about how public opinion on both sides needs to be informed, and how Germany can benefit from a stable Poland with an open market of 40 million people.

For a moment, amid the marble columns, some of the shadows of the old Europe crept in.