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EU: Leaders Reach Agreement On Reforms

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Berlin, 26 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has taken a significant step toward future eastward expansion. At a special summit meeting in Berlin (March 24-26) ending early this morning, the leaders of the 15 EU member states decided on an internal reform package designed to set the stage for the admission of new members from Central and Eastern Europe in the coming years.

The reform package was adopted after a grueling 18 hours of intense negotiations which ran through last night and into this morning. A jubilant German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, emerging from the conference, told journalists that the summit had been "extraordinarily successful". He said acceptance of the reform package shows the EU can work cohesively and is moving toward greater unity. He described the package, called 'Agenda 2000,' as a satisfactory blend of thrift and social justice.

Schroeder said: Briefly, I don't think we came to Berlin in vain; we have managed to endorse Europe's trade potentials, we have again strengthened it. We have certainly also made a contribution to an improved sense of belonging of the member countries of Europe than was apparent in recent weeks. It paid, we have made efforts, it paid off."

Schroeder said the EU's capacity to act had been further demonstrated during the summit by the quick and unanimous choice of former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi to head a new EU executive commission. The old commission had to resign earlier this month amid a mismanagement and fraud scandal which has threatened to throw the whole EU bureaucracy into chaos.

Schroeder also said that the unity of views at the summit in support of NATO action over Kosovo also showed the growing unity of purpose in the union.

Schroeder has reason to smile. As head of the current EU presidency, he has achieved much. But not everything. Firstly, on the positive side, the summit can be considered a personal triumph for the recently elected chancellor and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer. They guided, encouraged, and bullied other EU leaders through a maze of conflicting interests and national egos to a joint acceptance of a reform package. Schroeder's reputation as a political leader now stands higher than before the summit, and the German EU presidency appears crowned with success.

As for the reform package itself, it is not so profound in nature as might have been expected. Billed for months as the most sweeping reforms in the EU's history, the package now appears more of a trimming of existing lines rather than anything truly innovative.

What it does do is discipline the EU's extravagant spending habits and stabilize budget costs. But its does not represent a radical change in direction. The agricultural reforms, for instance, have been considerably watered down from a deal reached earlier this month by EU agricultural ministers. As approved this morning, it consists largely of a relatively small cut in guaranteed price supports for grain producers.

A corresponding reduction in beef price supports has been dropped altogether and dairy reform has been put off until 2005. The pullback from the cuts agreed earlier by the agriculture ministers was apparently at the demand of French President Jacques Chirac. Also, the reform package has created new grounds for discontent in that the British were able to once again successfully defend their special $3 billion annual rebate, won for them years ago by the formidable Margaret Thatcher. Most of the EU members consider the rebate unfair. Unfortunately for some of them, the package agreed to today transfers more of the load for paying the rebate onto them.

That's because Germany, Holland, Sweden, and Austria -- at present the biggest net-payers into the EU budget -- will be paying less to the British, so the other countries have to pick up the bill.

In addition, reductions were agreed to structural funds provided to the EU's less affluent members -- Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland.

At first appearance, today's agreement on reforms seems to achieve the aim of getting some control over EU affairs by holding spending down through 2006. But it remains to be seen whether the reforms agreed are radical enough to create the necessary financial framework for inclusion of new, poorer members from the East.