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EU: Reform Conference To Open Path For Easterners

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union next week begins a protracted meeting of its 15 member states -- known as an Inter-Governmental Conference, or IGC -- to hammer out by the end of this year a program of internal institutional reforms. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports that this IGC's results will affect the lives of tens of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe. A successful reform conference is necessary if the eastward expansion of the EU is to go forward within a reasonable time.

Prague, 11 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has long promised to get its own house in order to make itself fit for the massive expansion eastward that is expected to start within five years. Now the moment to redeem that promise has arrived, with the opening on Monday (Feb. 14) of an Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) in Brussels.

This IGC is meant to complete a systematic reform of the EU's institutions, which have grown haphazardly in the past as the union expanded to its present 15 members. The unwieldy system is threatened by paralysis or collapse as the union opens up to take in eventually 12 or 13 new members.

The chief spokesman of the current Portuguese EU presidency, Manuel Meneses, stresses the significance of the reform process:

"I think it is a very important moment, because, as you know, the union has to prepare itself for the enlargement, and therefore it must make some reforms just to enable it to continue functioning with an expanded number of members."

Meneses told RFE/RL that the Inter-Governmental Conference will run through the six months of the Portuguese presidency ending in June, and then through the following French presidency. France is scheduled to deliver the results of the IGC to next December's summit of EU leaders.

There are three key issues which must be decided at the IGC. They are: the number of commissioners in the EU Executive Commission; the weighting of votes per country in the EU's Council of Ministers, its chief decision-making organ; and extending the use of majority voting in the Council and the reduction of individual veto power. Meneses says:

"What we would like to do in the first stage is to identify the questions, the positions of the member states, and in the second stage to find what could be considered to be common agreement on certain issues and move ahead from that base."

At present, there are 20 commissioners -- two each for big nations Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain, and one each for the other 10 member states. The IGC could choose among three options: keeping the present format by simply adding one commissioner for each new member; giving only a single seat to every country regardless of size; or limiting the total size of the commission to 20 members. The last option would mean that not every country would necessarily be represented on the commission -- a delicate point for new and old members alike.

Under the current system of weighted votes in the Council of Ministers, the bigger countries get more votes -- for instance, 10 for Germany, the EU's most populous member (84 million), and only two for tiny Luxembourg (422,000). European Commission President Romano Prodi favors replacing this system with one in which the council could pass a proposal if it had the support of a simple majority of member states -- if that majority also represented also a majority of the EU's total population.

Prodi also favors the almost complete abolition of an individual member's veto power. At present, any member country can block a proposal when it feels its vital interests are at stake. If the IGC accepts the Prodi plan, vetoes would be limited to matters relating to EU institutional change, international agreements, and tax and social security decisions not related to the EU's single market.

Each of these three major areas up for decision by the IGC are extremely sensitive. The last IGC, which ended at the Amsterdam summit in 1997 after 18 months of work, was unable to come to agreement on these same issues. But now, given the pressure of time, Meneses says:

"In the end, it was not possible to agree on them (in Amsterdam), but now that we are facing the new enlargement, these issues must be tackled."

Other reform issues will probably be raised at new IGC, but its overall success depends upon a sensible resolution of this trio of big questions. It won't be an easy task.