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EU: Enlargement Commissioner Still Mired In Controversy

  • Ahto Lobjakas

EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen's call for a German referendum on the European Union's planned expansion to the East -- made in a weekend newspaper interview -- has sent shockwaves through the EU and its 10 East European candidate countries. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports on the controversy.

Brussels, 5 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Guenter Verheugen's suggestion that Germany hold a referendum on enlargement has caused widespread confusion. Over the last few days, it has been attacked by EU foreign ministers, candidate governments, and various analysts. European Commission President Romano Prodi has demanded an explanation, and the European Parliament today summoned Verheugen to clarify his remarks in Strasbourg, where the parliament is currently in session.

Verheugen's precise intentions in calling for the referendum in an interview with the Suddeutsche Zeitung on Saturday (Sept 2) are still a mystery. Uncharitable commentators have suggested that his comments may be part of a wider strategy to slow down enlargement, perhaps on instructions from the German government. Verheugen is a prominent member of the ruling Social Democrats, and it is no secret that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is not enthusiastic about beginning EU expansion before national elections due in 2002.

But that notion is belied by how fast Verheugen's comments were disowned by Germany Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Yesterday, Fischer summarily dismissed any idea of a referendum, insisting as well that expansion should begin before 2005.

In addition, there is no provision in Germany's Constitution for referenda. Holding one would therefore require amending the constitution.

Peter Ludlow, director of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, has a more straightforward explanation for Verheugen's motivations. In an interview with RFE/RL, Ludlow said the commissioner's remarks actually reflected reasonable concerns about expansion that have been expressed elsewhere. Verheugen's main aim, according to Ludlow, may have been to try to bring into focus the fact that public opinion in a number of EU countries is turning against enlargement.

"It's been clear that for some time now that public opinion -- particularly in Austria and Germany, but also in Belgium and France and one or two other countries -- has been deteriorating. I think Verheugen was reflecting a widespread concern. What he proposed, of course, was rather unconventional, but the issue of public opinion is becoming the key problem as far as enlargement is concerned."

Public support for enlargement is an issue which Verheugen, together with Commission President Prodi, has repeatedly addressed during the first half of this year. Both have stressed that the support of EU public opinion is essential for a successful enlargement. Earlier this summer, the commission announced an ambitious expansion information program targeting populations in both EU and candidate countries.

The state of EU public opinion on enlargement was also implicitly invoked by the European Commission yesterday in its attempt to extricate Verheugen from the controversy. Verheugen's spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori said that the commissioner's reference to a referendum was only "hypothetical." What he really had in mind, said Filori, was the need for public debate -- which, according to the spokesman, is the only way of guaranteeing enlargement's success.

There is little doubt, nevertheless, that the form Verheugen gave to his concerns in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung interview reflected, at best, bad judgment. Analyst Ludlow says that Verheugen probably gave the interview with the German readership in mind, without much consideration of its wider effects. Ludlow suggests the interview should be seen as marking the end of what he calls the EU's "silly season" rather than the start of more serious business. Ludlow says it is likely Verheugen was thinking aloud, even if not very rationally.

"I mean, can any serious German politician imagine that the German Constitution will be changed to enable the country to suddenly hold a referendum on this issue? They didn't hold a referendum on EMU [the Economic and Monetary Union], about which one would've said the negative opinion was even more pronounced, and certainly there'd been a pretty negative and national debate for a much longer period. I don't understand quite what Verheugen was getting at -- was he [just] throwing out ideas? The whole notion of a referendum in Germany is just very improbable"

There are two other reasons why Verheugen's suggestion remains mysterious. For one thing, referenda in Germany are associated with the kind of mass "democracy" that helped Hitler gain total power. For another, the only question that German citizens might reasonably be expected to answer in a referendum on expansion is whether the EU should enlarge at all -- which, inevitably, would suggest that the enlargement process is not irreversible.