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Western Press Review: Focus On EU Summit

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 4 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Our selection of commentary in the Western press today and yesterday centers on this week's coming (Dec 7-9) European Union summit in Nice, France. Analysts assess the prospects of the EU's 15 members agreeing on the critical internal reforms needed before the group's projected expansion to the East can take place.


In Britain's Financial Times, Peter Norman says that concessions on sensitive issues are needed if the EU is to embrace the former communist nations. He writes: "Success this week would open the way to an EU of 27 or more countries. Failure to agree [on] a Treaty of Nice would spawn a wave of recrimination, both in EU states and eastern Europe. The increasingly fragile public support for the EU and enlargement in member and applicant states would suffer a severe blow. The EU's credibility would suffer, as could the euro, [its common currency]."

The commentary goes on: "Set against the EU's lofty goals, the main issues to be negotiated in Nice appear uninspiring. In reality, they go to the heart of national sovereignty and the balance of power between small and large states. The issues include: [1] Extending qualified majority voting in the decision-making Council of Ministers to as many as 50 policy matters at present agreed by unanimity; [2] limiting the size of future commissions; [3] re-weighting the member states' votes in the council to better reflect their population sizes; [and 4] making it easier for groups of countries to advance with specific projects of greater integration in a process known as 'enhanced co-operation.'

Norman continues: "The summit could run until Sunday (Dec 10), with the leaders bargaining into the early hours of the morning on one or more days about how far to sacrifice their national vetoes or whether their countries should gain or lose voting power." He says: "Every member state has drawn 'red lines' over [its particular] sensitive areas. [The] same sensitivities apply to the question of how to define a majority. The present 'qualified majority' is a delicate balance between the need to respect the rights of the smaller countries and to give more weight to countries with bigger populations.

"But," Norman adds, "to stick with the present system in an enlarged EU could allow a coalition of smaller countries to outvote the bigger countries, even though they represent much less than half of the EU's total population. Hence," he concludes, "Germany's determined campaign to secure more votes, not just in relation to [tiny] Luxembourg but also in relation to France, its long-standing ally."


Two commentaries in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also deal with likely problems in Nice. Klaus-Dieter Frankenberg writes: "France finds it hard to come to terms with reunified Germany's desire to have more votes in the EU's Council of Ministers than all the other 'big boys.' France [fears] it could be relegated to power politics' second division." The commentator argues: "It would be unwise for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to risk the success of the Nice summit over this issue. That would also place at risk the enlargement of the community and the progress of union. But the demand for greater representation is in itself not outrageous."

Frankenberg says further: "[The] German government must ask itself whether it would be wise to make the re-weighting of votes a sticking point in Nice. Two or three votes more for Germany in the Council of Ministers count little against the majority of smaller countries, nor do they address the matter of how effectively an ever-growing community can manage its affairs in the future. In this regard," he goes on, "extending majority voting is much more important. This is something Mr. Schroeder should insist on at Nice. A Franco-German conflict over prestige, which could leave a lasting cloud of discord over European unity, is something he should not allow to happen."


Helmut Buender's commentary on the Nice summit, also in the FAZ, is concerned largely with its effects on the 10 candidate-states from eastern Europe. He writes that "mounting disillusionment is palpable in the capitals of some candidates for membership to the supranational organization. The euphoric reaction to the European Commission's most recent progress report -- especially in Poland, Hungary and Estonia -- has been followed by disappointment at the expected refusal of the heads of state and government of the current 15 member states to accept a target date for ending the negotiations."

Buender continues: "Even if all the proposed institutional reforms, which are a fundamental precondition for accepting new members, are brought to a successful conclusion, the [Nice meeting] could still shatter the last vague hopes that admission might be possible by 2003." He adds: "Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski had good reason to spend recent days preparing his country to accept the inevitable. French President Jacques Chirac wants to avoid overloading the complicated reform conference with debates over the timetable for expansion. He would like the Commission's strategy paper to be given the nod in a politically innocuous form, without the EU member states actually having to commit themselves to dates and substance. That debate will have to be conducted under the Swedish presidency in the first half of 2001."

The commentator also says: "Two fields, which together take up four-fifths of the EU's budget, will dominate the meeting -- agricultural policy and regional aid. The Commission would like to postpone the unavoidable battle over the distribution of [subsidies] worth thousands of millions of euros until the less contentious issues have been settled. [But] the 15 members do not plan to agree upon common negotiating positions on agricultural and structural policy until the first half of 2002."


In a news analysis for the French daily Liberation, Jean Quatremer says that the French government will never agree to giving up its voting parity with Germany simply because Germany is more populous. One reason, he says, is that Germany's current 82.6-million-strong population -- 30 percent greater than that of France -- is likely to diminish with the growing aging of Germany's population. That's far from all. He writes: "Why, France asks, shouldn't its economic, political and diplomatic weight be taken into account? Also, one should not forget that in the European Parliament, the only popularly elected EU institution, Germany has 99 votes, while the EU's three other big nations [France, Britain and Italy] have to make do with only 87 each."

Quatremer goes on: "What is intriguing about the French refusal [to accept German's demand for more votes based on its greater population] is that is really based on federalist arguments, although Paris is generally not for greater federalism. In contrast," he adds, "German's desire to have greater weight -- in increasing the differences among small, medium, and large EU members -- can only end in increasing the Union's existing institutional confusion."


In the Wall Street Journal Europe, commentator Anthony de Jasay pleads for the continuation of present national-veto rights on critical issues in the EU. He writes: "If national-veto rights are eroded at the EU's summit in Nice this week, those who gave in to France will present Paris's victory as a compromise. The veto -- it will be said -- has been saved for such important national decisions as the setting of personal income tax rates -- qualified majority voting will be used in other, less important areas. But," he argues, "such claims should mislead no one, least of all students of history. Qualified-majority systems have seldom resisted the pressures that in time turned them into the rule of simple majorities. In [the EU], this will mean socialism for everyone, in fact if not in name."

He continues: "France [and]the Commission, maintain that with enlargement from 15 to 19 members, and then to perhaps 24 or more, decision-making will become as good as hopeless unless we do away with the veto. But if today we won't let one country stop 14, one day soon we won't have seven stopping eight, or 12 stopping 13. Once things start being decided by a count of votes," he says, "they nearly always end up with bare majorities imposing their will on the rest."

For de Jasay, "the threat is obvious." He writes: "Libertarianism, or what remains of it, survives in Europe episodically. In large measure, it is kept alive by the fact that this continent is a decentralized, diversified place, where different laws and different political arrangements coexist. But," he points out, "there is no electoral majority for liberalism in Europe as a whole, and there is plainly no hope for one in the foreseeable future. An elected European government could only be a social democratic government -- even if it called itself something else -- and this would likely remain so for as long as it took irreversibly to mold a European super-states in its image."


Across the Atlantic, the Washington Times carries a news analysis by David Sands that also suggests that member-states' "squabbles [could] thwart the EU's summit efforts." He writes: "The [meeting] of EU leaders [was] intended to be the triumphant capstone of [French President Jacques] Chirac's six-month stint as EU president, clearing the way for the admission of up to 13 [mostly] central and east European applicants over the next decade. But," he finds, "diplomats, analysts and some of the Union's own key players now say the French will be fortunate to avoid complete failure in Nice."

Sands goes on: "French diplomats say they still have not finessed the EU's central dilemma. Facing a union whose membership nearly will double in the coming years, EU officials like [Commission President Romano] Prodi insist they must have more power to make decisions on economic and social policy or the organizational gears will grind to a halt. [But] EU governments are divided deeply on which powers they are willing to surrender to Brussels, and have quarreled openly over how to parcel out representation between large members like France and Germany and smaller ones such as Denmark and Portugal."

The analyst also says: "The reformers' preferred solution -- a 'qualified majority' system on some issues in which a single recalcitrant member can't block a change -- has proven a tough sell. Austria, for example, demands a veto over any major decisions on immigration policy, citing a number of lower-wage former communist economies on its doorstep. [And] even Mr. Chirac's France is not blameless, rejecting the idea of qualified majority voting for financial services or cultural matters. The latter stance reflects long-standing French fears that the country's 'patrimony' -- movies in particular -- would be threatened by unfettered free trade in intellectual products."