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EU: Summit Seen As Only Qualified Success

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Meeting at Biarritz over the weekend, EU leaders discussed internal reforms that are necessary to prepare the bloc for enlargement. Although some progress was made, it was mostly limited to areas not directly linked to concerns about enlargement. Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas evaluates Biarritz's results.

Brussels, 17 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's Biarritz summit was a qualified success, at best. It made some progress on internal reforms, but mostly in areas that don't directly concern enlargement. And the core issues of institutional reforms identified at last December's Helsinki summit did not fare nearly as well.

Biarritz's most visible achievement was an agreement among the 15 assembled leaders to allow for a "multi-track" future EU. They agreed that those countries that wanted to integrate faster than others in certain areas should be allowed to do so.

Most EU members supported the idea that faster integration for some of them should cover all important areas of cooperation -- the economy, foreign policy, and justice and internal affairs. But they attached two general conditions to moving ahead on a multi-track union: First, the more rapid integration of some members should not lead to the creation of a so-called "pioneer group" that always consists of the same members. Second, the possibility of fast-track integration should be open to all members who want to join the process.

Another issue where greater consensus was evident in Biarritz was that of a proposed charter of fundamental rights for EU citizens. It is now generally agreed that the charter should not become legally binding in the near future. Yet most members -- with the important exception of Britain -- now do agree that in a more distant future the rights should be incorporated into the national legislation of each member state.

Progress at Biarritz on issues having to do with more immediate institutional reform was less impressive. Among the most controversial of them is the redistribution of power among member states, as well as among the EU's major institutions, after enlargement take place.

In this area, bitter divisions appeared during the summit between large and small member-states. Large countries like Germany, France, Britain and Italy want to reweigh national votes in the European Council, which represents member governments. The "big four" -- together with Spain, which aspires to a similar status -- fear they could be outvoted by smaller nations after expansion to as many as 28 members. At present, the voting system is tilted in favor of the EU's smaller countries.

The issue was made quite concrete when Germany said it would not tolerate a situation where net contributors to the EU budget could be outvoted by those who pay in less than they receive. Germany is today the EU's biggest net contributor.

At the same time, the EU's larger members pressed for the capping of the size of the European Commission -- the EU's chief executive body -- at its present size of 20 commissioners. France, backed by Germany, urged a future commission numbering less than the total of member states. Both states also backed the idea of rotating commissioners among small and big member states.

Under the current system, France, German, Britain and Italy have two commissioners each, while other members have one. In Biarritz, German Chancellor Schroeder said that his government's willingness to accept future "equal rotation" of commissioners meant it was willing to move from having two commissioners to only half a commissioner -- and was therefore a sign of its commitment to EU integration.

Some form of reducing the commission's size, perhaps through rotation, is inevitable after enlargement. But the ease with which some larger members have agreed to limiting their presence in the Commission is alarming certain smaller nations.

The small states fear that the big four's relative loss of interest in the executive body heralds a downgrading of the supranational Commission's role in favor of the inter-governmental European Council. Some of the larger countries have in fact indicated they would like to see more real decision-making powers vested in the Council, leaving the Commission with limited supervisory functions. At Biarritz, smaller countries like Austria and Finland expressed fears that a resultant domination of bigger countries in EU decision-making could lead to them usurping a role akin to that of the Security Council in the United Nations.

Another critical area where no consensus emerged at Biarritz was the extension of qualified majority voting in EU decisions. Enlargement could lead the EU to almost double its membership in coming years, making it imperative to restrict present national veto rights. But there is still little willingness among some member states to let go of their veto powers in areas considered vital to their national interests.

The results of the Biarritz summit were summed up by the host, France's president Jacques Chirac, who said the leaders had "all agreed to set [themselves] high aims for the Nice summit." But given that the Nice summit -- the universally agreed deadline for internal EU reform efforts -- is now less than two months away, the time for achieving those aims is running short.

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