Prague, 1 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Eastward enlargement of the European Union is now a dominant theme of EU activities, even if the 10 candidate countries often find progress toward that goal frustratingly slow.
The current German presidency of the EU has made internal financial reform a key preoccupation of its term. Last week (March 24-26) in Berlin, it secured agreement on a reform package which -- although milder than originally proposed -- at least imposes spending discipline on the unruly EU budget process. That's a precursor of further financial reforms needed to cope with the expense of absorbing newcomers.
The next president, Finland -- whose six-month term starts in July -- has already made clear that it, too, will make preparations for expansion a main theme. In Finland's case, the focus will be on reforming EU institutions to accommodate the expected influx of 10 more European mainland nations, plus Cyprus and Malta.
Effective institutional reform is necessary if the EU is to avoid becoming an even more unwieldy Tower of Babel than at present, one in which coherent decision-making would be impossible.
Finnish President Martii Ahtisaari -- in an interview with RFE/RL -- emphasized the Finnish desire to see both speedy expansion of the union, as well as reform:
"We are in favor of enlargement. We are arguing that every applicant country which fulfills the criteria should be allowed to join the European Union. Obviously, it is important for us that our nearest neighbors among the applicant countries will have a chance. Estonia is already in among the first group; Latvia and Lithuania are working hard to improve their performance and clearly have made progress. So, obviously, we are watching that they are being treated fairly."
Ahtisaari says, however, that he does not believe it is practical yet to set dates for the entry of any new members. He says so much depends on the rate of preparation of the individual candidates themselves, plus the rate at which present members tackle internal reforms:
"A lot of reforms have to be carried out internally by the present 15 members. We have to decide on how many commissioners there would be when the enlargement takes place; what are the subjects on which we can take majority decisions; how will voting arrangements be changed. On all these issues, we have to be able to make our own decisions. Therefore, it is not only the applicant countries that have to do their work; also the present members of the European Council have to do theirs."
The European Policy Center (EPC) -- a leading Brussels-based think tank -- is presently preparing recommendations for the EU Commission on a number of key EU policy issues, including the question of national representation in expanded EU executive structures, and voting procedures.
EPC chairman Stanley Crossick told RFE/RL that the principle of each country having at least one commissioner on the EU Executive Commission will almost certainly remain, given the present political climate. He says he finds this regrettable from the point of view of efficiency, as there is not enough work for the 20 present commissioners, let alone 25 or more of them.
On voting procedures for the various decision-making Councils of Ministers, the EC is recommending that the need for unanimity is ended in practically all cases, in favor of qualified majority voting. Crossick says that on qualified majority voting, reforms are envisaged to reflect national weight more fairly. Under present practice, a qualified majority vote is considered successful when some two-thirds of the member countries support it.
But -- as more small countries from the east and Mediterranean prepare to join the EU -- that is being seen as unfair to the big countries where most of Europe's citizens live. So under the revised procedure being suggested, the voting would be by a simple majority of countries but with a built-in weighting according to population. In other words, in order for a measure to be adopted, there would have to be a simple majority of countries and those countries would also have to represent a majority of the EU's total population.
Taking up the point made by Ahtisaari about the unlikelihood that firm entry dates will be set during the Finnish presidency, Crossick says he agrees with that. He says the present process of EU negotiations and screening of candidates will not have reached a stage under the Finns where the EU Commission will safely be able to set dates. He said the earliest point for that would be during the Portuguese presidency in the first half of next year.
Despite the clamor from candidates for firm entry dates, Crossick does not find such dates serve any real purpose:
"The idea of fixing dates is worthless. It has already been done in the past by public statement -- the date suggested at that time being 2000. And, of course, member states insisted it was 2000 until it became obvious that it was not."
He says a more solid process would be to set out the key stages in the accession process for each candidate, and set a date for each stage to be successfully completed. In that way, it is immediately evident if the timetable is slipping behind.