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EU: Helsinki Summit Ends In Success

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Helsinki summit of European Union leaders, which ended Saturday, appears to have been a solid success. RFE/RL corespondent Breffni O'Rourke reports from the Finnish capital.

Helsinki, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus has described the EU's Helsinki gathering as perhaps the summit of the century. That may be a permissible exaggeration from the leader of a country which has just been invited to hold direct negotiations for membership in the EU. But by any measure, the two-day summit in Finland's gray and rainy capital must count as a solid success for the Union.

For once, the feuding between Union members which has beset most summits was largely absent this time. A severe storm about tax harmonization which blew up between Britain and most other members in advance of the summit was quietly sublimated into an agreement to set up a committee to examine the matter.

Apart from merely avoiding that row, the summit gave new momentum to the flagging eastward expansion effort, helped heal Turkey's troubled relations with Europe, and approved a new and independent military force for the continent. EU leaders also took concrete steps to punish Russia for the conduct of its military campaign in Chechnya.

On expansion, the Union issued formal invitations to five more Central and East European countries plus Malta to open direct negotiations leading to membership. The six candidates already holding negotiations took the widening of the circle in good spirits, although one front-runner, Estonia, insisted that membership criteria must remain clear and must be fairly applied.

At a concluding press conference, EU Commission President Romano Prodi said that progress made on expansion was the highlight of the summit. But he stressed that much work remains to be done.

"This summit will be remembered and will be remembered because of the enlargement. Really, I don't want to make any rhetoric, but we did open a new chapter in European history. And this will be a tremendous job for the future because we only opened a new chapter -- we didn't close it. But we start really a new era of European history and it's a success for all of us. It is a success for the member states, and it's a success for the candidate countries, and it's a success also for the commission."

The arrival at the summit of Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit brought a whole new tone to the proceedings. Ecevit flew in after top EU officials made a special flight to Ankara to explain to him the terms of the EU's offer of a formal candidacy. The offer, made on Friday, ends a chapter of frustration for Turkey which began back in the 1960s, when it first tried to forge closer links with a reluctant Europe.

At a press conference, Ecevit said he believes the EU will eventually spread eastward to include Azerbaijan and countries in Central Asia. He criticized the plan to create a new Euro military force, saying it will inevitably weaken NATO. One of the main hindrances to Turkish EU membership any time soon is its record on human rights. A key element of that is the conflict between Turkish authorities and their country's Kurdish minority. Ecevit gave little ground on that matter, saying it is pointless to consider the Kurds as a people separate from other Turks, and that the West should have a more realistic appreciation of the structure of Turkish society.

In an ironic twist of fate, Ecevit was speaking at the summit media center in a temporary briefing room called "Aapo". That echoes closely the nickname of condemned Turkish Kurd leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The EU has already warned Turkey that if the execution of Ocalan goes ahead, there will be no place for it in the "European family".

One of the Eastern leaders extending a welcoming hand to Turkey was Romania's President Emil Constentinescu, who said Christian Europe needs a Muslim state like Turkey as a partner to add diversity to the Union.

With the end of the summit, the Finnish EU Presidency can be ranked a clear success as it moves toward its end. In January the office rotates to Portugal. That means the next regular EU summit will take place in warmer climes, namely Lisbon in summer time.